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Column: The March on Washington: Promise and Reality

  • A wide-angle view shows marchers along the National Mall at the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument during the March on Washington in 1963. Crowd estimates reached 300,000, and the event presaged the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (National Archives/MCT)

    A wide-angle view shows marchers along the National Mall at the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument during the March on Washington in 1963. Crowd estimates reached 300,000, and the event presaged the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (National Archives/MCT)

  • King delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington. The rhetorical masterpiece at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial called for an end to racism in the U.S., and served as a defining moment in the struggle for civil rights. (National Archives/MCT)

    King delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington. The rhetorical masterpiece at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial called for an end to racism in the U.S., and served as a defining moment in the struggle for civil rights. (National Archives/MCT)

  • A wide-angle view shows marchers along the National Mall at the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument during the March on Washington in 1963. Crowd estimates reached 300,000, and the event presaged the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (National Archives/MCT)
  • King delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington. The rhetorical masterpiece at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial called for an end to racism in the U.S., and served as a defining moment in the struggle for civil rights. (National Archives/MCT)

Saturday’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (the actual anniversary is Aug. 28) was planned to celebrate what is arguably the high-water mark of the civil rights movement. It also serves as a reminder of how far we have yet to travel to eliminate discrimination and attain racial equality.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom built on the long-cherished proposal of A. Philip Randolph, civil rights activist and head of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In 1941, Randolph had called for a march on Washington to pressure Franklin D. Roosevelt to guarantee blacks access to wartime jobs. When the president capitulated, however, the march was canceled, although Randolph resuscitated the idea as the civil rights movement hit its stride in the late 1950s and early 1960s under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

By late 1962, Randolph and Bayard Rustin, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and sometime associate of King’s, began seriously to discuss a march on Washington. The purpose, in their words, would be “to embody in one gesture civil rights as well as economic demands.” In the meantime, King and other civil rights leaders pressured John F. Kennedy to be a more forceful advocate for civil rights. They challenged the president to mark the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, Jan. 1, 1963, with a clarion call for racial equality. Kennedy, already eyeing his re-election campaign in 1964 and his need for southern votes, issued a tepid statement marking the centennial.

The spring of 1963, however, altered the political calculus. The protests associated with Project C (for “Confrontation”) in Birmingham, Ala., demonstrated to the world the intensity of southern racism as Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses against peaceful protesters, many of them barely teenagers. Connor arrested King on Good Friday, and when a group of white clergy issued an open letter castigating King for coming to Birmingham and urging him to go slowly, King responded with his Letter from Birmingham Jail, arguably the manifesto of the civil rights movement.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote. “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.”

Responding in part to the national outrage over Birmingham’s fire hoses and police dogs, Kennedy finally sent a civil rights bill to Congress on June 19, 1963, and the focus of the proposed march shifted to pressuring Congress to pass the legislation.

Still, the Kennedy administration remained leery. “We want success in Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol,” the president warned, fearful that a massive demonstration would provide members of Congress with a pretext for voting against the bill. “Some of these people are looking for an excuse to be against us; and I don’t want to give any of them a chance to say, ‘Yes, I’m for the bill, but I am damned if I will vote for it at the point of a gun.’ ”

Civil rights leaders refused to back down, and the nation’s capital braced for the March on Washington. Police vacations and leaves were canceled, the Washington Senators postponed their scheduled doubleheader and liquor sales were suspended in the District of Columbia for the first time since Prohibition. Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general, mandated that no police dogs would be used for crowd control, but none were needed. The crowd of a quarter-million demonstrators, hewing to the ethic of nonviolence, was peaceful. They gathered at the Washington Monument and marched to the Lincoln Memorial. Many carried signs: “We March for Jobs for All Now!” “End Segregated Rules in Public Schools,” “We Demand an End to Police Brutality Now!” “We Demand Voting Rights Now!”

Early in the program, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Roy Wilkins announced the death that morning of W. E. B. DuBois in Ghana. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang, as did Peter, Paul & Mary, Marion Anderson and the Albany Freedom Singers. Backstage, John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was arguing heatedly with March organizers over the speech he was about to give. The draft of the speech was strongly critical of the Kennedy administration, and organizers urged him to tone it down. Lewis, now a member of Congress from Georgia, finally relented amid the pleas of Randolph.

The speech was still forceful, even in modified form. “We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We will pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently,” Lewis declared. “We will fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.” His speech was interrupted 14 times by applause.

The highlight of the day, of course, was King’s I Have a Dream speech, which is remembered alongside such classics as the Gettysburg Address as one of the soaring examples of American oratory. But it was an address that did not begin auspiciously. (In a somewhat humorous moment, Randolph introduced King as “Martin Luther King J-R.”)

By the time King stepped to the rostrum, he was exhausted from all of the preparations and negotiations, distracted by last-minute logistics. “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” The early part of the speech was competent but hardly remarkable. As King was preparing to wind down, however, Mahalia Jackson, seated nearby, said, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin, tell ’em about the dream.”

King had delivered a variation of his I Have a Dream speech in several places, including Detroit, and he responded in the best tradition of African-American call-and-response oratory. “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” The preacher had found his voice. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”

Equality, however, remained elusive. Eighteen days after the March on Washington, the Ku Klux Klan detonated a bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham at 9:43 on Sunday morning, killing four little girls during Sunday school. The church had served as the staging area for the protests of Project C. Revulsion at the bombings, together with the legislative prowess of Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the signature achievements of the civil rights movement.

Fifty years later, racial equality remains elusive. The unemployment rate among African Americans is roughly double that of the rest of the population, and blacks make up about 38 percent of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons, a number far in excess of their percentage of the population: 13 percent. The Supreme Court recently invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and several states have rushed in with voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting and other provisions generally understood to be ploys to undermine the electoral influence of blacks and other minorities. A 2012 study found that African Americans waited an average of 23 minutes to cast their ballots, whereas whites waited only 12 minutes.

While I suspect that organizers of the March on Washington could never have envisioned an African-American president of the United States, John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from the event, regards the election of Barack Obama as merely a “down payment” on Martin Luther King’s dream. Racial profiling — what some African Americans call “driving while black” — is all too real in many communities, and the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida underscores the persistence of racial stereotypes. After the shooting, President Obama memorably remarked that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

The March on Washington was a transcendent moment in American history, a day marked by celebration and determination and soaring rhetoric. Fifty years later, however, we still have a long way to go to redeem Martin Luther King’s dream.

Randall Balmer, whose column appears monthly in Perspectives, is chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College. Among the courses he teaches is Religion and Civil Rights.