50 years after the seminal event of the civil rights era, the work is still unfinished
Constance Baker Motley, the great civil rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was not planning to attend the now-famous civil rights March on Washington 50 years ago this month. She was exhausted. As one of Martin Luther King’s lawyers during the Birmingham campaign, she had secured his and Ralph Abernathy’s release from a squalid, scorching hot jail in Americus, Ga., where both men were detained while traveling to Alabama. Motley was among a cadre of civil rights attorneys who spent a great deal of time in county jails throughout the Deep South helping to release detained civil rights activists. Arrests during the Birmingham campaign of 1963 kept Motley and her colleagues particularly busy.
But she was finally persuaded to attend the march by her husband and by news reports of massive crowds on the National Mall. After listening to King’s soaring speech while sitting on stage, she described the march as “the 20th century’s finest hour.” Motley’s assessment reflects her evolving recognition that mass mobilization plays a powerful role in advancing the fight for equality and justice.
Without question, Motley and other civil rights lawyers first and foremost believed in the power of the law to transform America from a separate and unequal society to one that strived to fulfill the promises set out in our foundational documents. Civil rights lawyers were uniquely successful in using the law to challenge the illegality of institutionalized racism. Their victories changed the very practice of law, altering it from a tool that had mainly been used to resolve individual and business disputes to a powerful instrument of social transformation. The lawyer as idealist and as “social engineer” was born from the crusading efforts of Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter, all of whom spent 25 years litigating a desegregation campaign that dismantled legal apartheid in this country.
This Saturday’s rally and march at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., billed as the “National Action to Realize the Dream March,” will commemorate the “Great March” of 1963. But it is also its own call to action at a moment of increased racial tension, renewed challenges to minority voting rights, and an intense economic crisis in African-American communities.
One of the most important demands of the march this year is to push Congress to pass an amendment to the Voting Rights Act that will restore protections for voters of color removed by the Supreme Court’s devastating decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. When the NAACP Legal Defense Fund argued the case in the Supreme Court on behalf of black voters from Shelby County, we cited an extensive, 15,000-page record amassed by Congress that documented ongoing, persistent efforts to get between black and Hispanics and the ballot box and dilute their political power. In a stunning act of “hubris,” as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in her dissent, the Supreme Court substituted its own view about the current reality of race discrimination in voting for the evidence amassed in the record.
In the wake of the decision, the view of many Southern officials was summed up by the secretary of state of Florida, who declared, “We’re free and clear now.” In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott interpreted this call as freedom to commence purging voters from the rolls. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s legislature has enacted a laundry list of anti-voter measures, restricting early voting and even stripping funding for educating high school students about voting.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin and the unacceptable role of race in our criminal justice system also warrant our collective protest. With the proliferation of guns in our society and the existence of “stand your ground” laws in 33 states, the acquittal of Mr. Zimmerman on all charges suggests that average citizens are free to stalk and kill black teenagers with impunity, protected by their subjective, racialized fear of bodily threat.
Add to this the fact that the unemployment rate for blacks remains double that of whites and that nearly 40 percent of African-American children live in poverty. Blacks also face ongoing racial discrimination in the workplace. In a case recently settled by NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers, a national retail chain fired black managers because they thought it ruined their “brand image” to have blacks on the floor of their stores.
Why should we march? Fifty years after the Great March, we march because the work is not finished. We march because in this moment this country stands at a crossroads, and we must choose. We must decide whether we will be the nation of inclusion and opportunity or a nation of exclusion and entrenched inequality. We march in protest against attempts to undo the hard-won progress we have made over the past 50 years. We march together — lawyers, clergy, students, parents, activists and ordinary, everyday people — to demonstrate our unity and strength of purpose in our never-ending fight for a better America, one in which the values of equality and justice are more than just words inside courtrooms.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She taught at the University of Maryland School of Law for 20 years and is the author of “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching In The 21st Century.” Twitter: @Sifill_LDF.