The March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, was much more than Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. To fully appreciate the significance of the event – and how some of the dreams are still unfulfilled – it’s necessary to understand the march’s context and more of its message.
For many in Washington, D.C., including President Kennedy, the biggest worry about the march was whether it would be peaceful. Smaller protests and demonstrations in other cities in the months leading up to the march were met with violence and confrontation.
In June 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace tried to block two African-American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. Earlier that same month, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi. In April, King was locked up in Alabama, where he wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
So the event carried risk.
The march also wasn’t just about interracial harmony and wanting to be judged based on character not skin color. The full name of the event was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and many of the speakers championed economic justice.
The original idea for the march was proposed years earlier by a union leader, and the list of demands included raising the minimum wage to “give all Americans a decent standard of living.”
Though many people were moved by King’s words and hoped for real change, many others continued to resist.
Only 18 days after the march, on Sept. 15, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It took a year before Congress approved the Civil Right Act of 1964, and another year after that before the Voting Rights Act became law.
Though the percentage of African-Americans who graduate from high school has increased dramatically since the march – from 23 percent in 1962 to 86 percent in 2012 – the income and wealth gaps between whites and African-Americans have actually increased. The Great Recession was particularly hard on African-Americans, and the unemployment rate among African-Americans was 12.6 percent in July, almost double the rate of whites.
Studies also show that African-Americans have been unfairly targeted by law enforcement and are more likely to be sent to prison than whites, which has taken a toll on families and neighborhoods.
Several states, including Kansas, have imposed new voting restrictions that can disenfranchise African-Americans.
There has been tremendous progress in civil rights and race relations – illustrated dramatically when President Obama speaks Wednesday on the same steps where King dreamed. But many of the march’s concerns about jobs and opportunities remain, half a century later.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee