Aug. 28, 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, or what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as the time to “rise from the dark, desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of social justice.” Given the fact that the anniversary march was titled “The National March to Realize the Dream,” we can all agree that this sunlit path remains overshadowed by stand-your ground laws, Voter ID laws, gentrification, stop and frisk—the list goes on. However, the real “dream” of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement—a dream that is complicated and multidimensional, but combines racial justice with economic equality and anti-war sentiments—has been pushed aside and replaced by the messaging of folks from John F. Kennedy to Glenn Beck who often quote a single line of King’s 1963 address—messaging that conveniently dovetails with a political agenda. The march has been watered down to “I have a dream that one day my four little children will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” By doing so, our nation’s leaders can ignore cries for economic equality and justice, and promote the idea that people are in a color-blind, level-playing-field society where they can be judged solely by their character.
At the 1963 march, right before King spoke, Rep. John Lewis declared the objective of the movement by stating: “We must free ourselves from the chains of political and economic slavery.” Each speaker made the outlines of the “dream” clear: Eliminate racial segregation in public schools, protect against police brutalities, create a major public works program to provide jobs, prohibit discrimination in hiring and establishing a minimum wage. At the time, these demands were so clear that they were used to craft the Civil Rights Act, but over the past 50 years we have forgotten explicit demands for a few catchy, patriotic lines like “Thank God Almighty we are free at last.” This is evidenced by the fact that some of the racial justice problems we face today run immediately parallel with 1963 demands. We still see school districts established by apparent racial lines, black men who are subjected frequently to stop and frisk laws, and an almost 40 percent lower median income for black families compared to white families.
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the movement turned into a battle for mass redistribution of wealth and a poor people’s campaign that went beyond racial lines. The struggle for civil rights became a radical battle for economic equality. Now that blacks had some basic freedoms protected and the right to vote, it was time to seize true equality. The poor people’s campaign, however, will probably never be a moment in history the public pauses to remember. I can only imagine an America that gathers and recites some of King’s other classic quotes like, “God never intended for some of his children to live in inordinate, superfluous wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty.” The movement became closely aligned with the anti-Vietnam war protests, as well as the Black Power and Black Panther movement, which people often fear and regard solely as a terrorist organization, but its primary objectives included educating black youth. Once this happened, politicians and the mainstream historical narrative decided to turn a blind-eye toward a movement with demands that would never be adequately addressed by the federal government. This dream did not fit neatly in our nation’s narrative. Acknowledging a movement that demanded equality in practice, not just on paper, would be recognizing our failure.
The 50th anniversary march follows a story similar to the one that happened in 1963. The march brought together former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists and activists from around the country holding pictures of Trayvon Martin and protesting Chicago public school closures. There were even some protesting drone strikes and Syria. Altogether, the crowd was an impressive assembly of diverse individuals, just as complicated and passionate as the 1963 crowd. This group of people, however, stood and listened to the same run-of-the-mill politicians—Bill Clinton whose welfare reform program has left many black Americans without unemployment benefits and Barack Obama who insisted young, black fathers begin to “take responsibility.” All of them were neatly wrapped in a package of false liberalism and empty, overused King rhetoric.
So as we march forward to “realize the dream,” we have to think about which version of the dream we’re referring to. The one thrown around by John Boehner, Glenn Beck, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama? The dream that leads us to believe we have achieved victory as our prisons become overcrowded and schools are closed? Instead, we must think about the first attempt of a March on Washington in 1941, Freedom Summer of 1964, the poor people’s campaign of 1968, and the Moral Monday protests of 2013. We must think about the uncomfortable moments in history and the moments of disagreement and tension, the moments that highlight our nation’s problems and failures. If we fail to recognize the politically inconvenient moments in history, perhaps we should choose another excerpt from the 1963 March on Washington to title King’s speech: “We can never be satisfied.”
Adrienne Harreveld is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Friday. Send Adrienne a message on Twitter @AdrienneLiege.