The March on Washington in 1963 ushered in a massive explosion of fundamental changes in the structure of society in America. Have the gains been sustained?
After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a most memorable and compelling speech to the world before a crowd of 250,000 in Washington, D.C. in August 1963, the fruits of his labor along with those who were responsible for that historic gathering, did not immediately become apparent. Dr. King said, "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, Black men as well as White men, would be guaranteed the 'unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'."
Though President John F. Kennedy seemed genuinely sincere in nudging the nation towards the more perfect union that had also been written into the U.S. Constitution but in which Black people were never allowed to fully partake, the real work had only just begun. The men who had organized the march were calling on the President and indeed the lawmakers of the nation, to act on that promissory note because Dr. King also added, "We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt."
The tumultuous journey that lay ahead was compounded by the assassination of President Kennedy just three months later. That dealt a massive blow to the momentum that had been built up following the march and the expectations of a forward continuous movement to sustain that momentum. Nevertheless, the journey had begun – "the train had left the station." The new administration would eventually engineer sweeping civil rights and voting rights laws that started the kind of revolution that the men and women who went to Washington had envisioned.
The "public" in public accommodations began to reflect real and meaningful changes in society even though there were still pockets of resistance especially in the South but also in the North. Utopia, by no means, had arrived. Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and several other less-heralded civil rights legislation that were a direct result of civil disobedience and protest rallies and marches throughout the country. But the passing of concrete legislation was only the tip of the iceberg. What was really needed was aggressive enforcement of the laws that created a sense of true equality in society.
There were three main organizations that stood up for the rights of Black people, and have continued the fight into the 21st century: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In addition, there are many elders who have fought alongside those who challenged the status quo on behalf of the downtrodden, the forgotten and the voiceless.
Lillian Mobley is a board member of the Brotherhood Crusade, co- founder of Mothers in Action and one of the architects in the founding of King Hospital. She is most affectionately regarded as a matriarch of the Civil Rights Movement who has fought the good fight and is still going strong in her twilight years. She said, "The things that happened in the past have shown us the light at the end of the tunnel. Some major progress has been made and it's going to take all of us working together to make the changes come to pass. All the things that have happened in the past happened for a reason in God's divine order and it has brought us where we are today."
Perhaps, some of the overall attention that has been focused on the few who have made it gives a distorted view of the actual progress that has been made. For example, the ascension of the middle-class, the millionaires, and the few billionaires, if placed in perspective to those at the "bottom of the food chain," a proportional representation of progress can be better analyzed, viewed and understood.
As Rev. Jesse Jackson stated in his column: "Dr. King argued that no democracy-indeed no prosperity-could long survive if the bulk of the rewards go to the few, and the many struggle simply to get by." Rev. Jackson added that we need a new economy, not a return to the old one. "Dr. King," he continued, "understood that crises forces dramatic change, and that change could make us better."
It was no accident that despite major legislative gains, that period was referred to as "the turbulent '60s." As the '60s ended and the '70s began, there was Affirmative Action. Meanwhile, the law still played a pivotal part in molding behavior and defining social patterns. Like the Plessy and Brown cases, and other executive orders and century-old Civil Rights Acts, there were modern versions of the seemingly same cause-"roses by other names"-the Bakke decision and Grutter vs. Lee.
Rev. Eric Lee, president of the SCLC of Greater Los Angeles, chimed in, "It's hard to say that we haven't make any progress, because we have – the '64 and '65 Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts that were passed, and in the '70s, we had Affirmative Action. But since then there has been no civil rights legislation that has been passed to continue to help level the playing field. Ten years ago, there were some civil rights legislation was passed but it has reversed some of the gains that we made in the '50s, '60s and '70s."
Oft-times the beginning of real change will escape the near-sighted because it takes a form not easily understood. Real change takes time and most observers can now readily see and interpret what Dr. King did when he walked among the people. It is not accident that dramatic changes began in society in the final years of Dr. King's life, and major changes in the civil rights arena continued after he departed.
And though there is still much left to be done, Senator Rod Wright stated in a recent article, "If President Obama is true to his promise to America's poor to get them back to work, I believe that Dr. King would view the inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th president as a great birthday gift, and a step closer to his "Promised Land."
Contrary to what passes for conventional wisdom, the conversation about civil rights in American has not ended with Obama's inauguration. It must now accelerate at full speed.