Fifty years ago, the goals of the March on Washington were simple.
Black people came together with enlightened white people to demand equal rights and the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
But a half-century later, African-Americans have realized only half the dream.
Today, black people are free to move wherever their money can take them.
But that right has become almost irrelevant because too many African Americans, black men in particular, can’t find legitimate work that would allow them to feed, clothe and provide for a family.
When you add in the mix the mass incarceration of young black men, urban violence, racial profiling and the dilution of voting-rights laws and affirmative action programs, it is not surprising that it will take two rallies to mark the historic march and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
On one hand, African-Americans have come incredibly far since King delivered his famous speech.
On the other, a lot of black people in urban America face some of the same challenges they did when King moved into a dilapidated West Side apartment in the ’60s.
On Saturday, the National Action Network, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, will take the lead with a “Realize the Dream” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a march to the King Memorial.
Events surrounding that commemoration will focus on continued economic disparities, as well as social justice issues.
Speakers on Saturday include: Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and the families of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin.
But this time around black people will not be coming to the nation’s capital as outsiders.
On Wednesday Aug. 28, President Barack Obama will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, presenting a powerful visual of the African-American paradox.
“It was jobs and freedom then. It is jobs and justice now,” says Iva Carruthers, general secretary for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.
The SDPC is a faith-based, non-profit organization that is seeking to mobilize the African-American faith community around social justice issues. The group brought about 60 college students from 11 eleven historically black colleges to D.C. to participate in a series of events commemorating the 1963 March.
“Despite the gains that we have made, the issues of the global economy, issues of mass incarceration and the issue of the “media white-out” that does not tell our narrative makes this environment very different than in 1963,” she said.
Frankly, Sharpton is a great example of someone who has benefitted from the hard-fought civil rights battles that culminated with the March on Washington.
Once counted among the most racially polarizing figures in the civil rights movement, Sharpton now has access to the Obama White House and has transformed himself into a media mogul — all while running a national civil rights organization.
And we can’t ignore that a black family now lives in the White House.
Yet, until the masses of blacks are lifted out of the despair of unemployment and lack, King’s dream remains only but a dream.
“It is as necessary and as effective now to march as it was 50 years ago,” Sharpton said in a recent USA Today interview.
Bennett Johnson, a long-time activist in Chicago and vice president of Third World Press Publishing, was one of the main organizers of the 1963 March.
“I consider the March on Washington the ending and the beginning,” Bennett said in a telephone interview.
“The March ended legal segregation in the South, but economic and political freedom became the order of the day. Since that time, the issues haven’t been sharp enough and the leadership has been more toward me, rather than the community,” he said.
Carruthers sees the events marking the historic march as a golden opportunity.
“We have veteran civil rights activists here and we are passing the intergenerational mantle of our legacy and putting out the call to continue the fight for justice as a human-rights movement,” she said.
“Unfortunately, we have not told the story sufficiently to our young people.”
Over the next few days, people from across the country will be in Washington D.C. to remember the march that changed our nation’s destiny.
I hope in the end, we will be inspired to go home and change our neighborhoods.