For all the grainy black-and-white television replays and the smoothed-by-time recollections of the living participants, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington has inevitably taken on a sepia glow.
Unlike the quarter million justice-seeking Americans massed at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on a warm August Wednesday in 1963, we know how the civil rights story of the 1960s played out. Both the legislative triumphs (public accommodations and voting rights) and the tears (assassination and riots) are etched in our collective memory.
But reading the contemporary newspaper coverage and the histories with half a century’s hindsight reminds us how much has changed about America. A mid-August Gallup Poll in 1963 found that only 23 percent of those who were familiar with the upcoming march had a favorable opinion of this form of protest.
The fear was omnipresent, even among white liberals who supported the goals of civil rights. John Kennedy had tried in vain to persuade the organizers of the march not to come to Washington. On that festive Wednesday in August, the Pentagon had nearly 20,000 soldiers on standby duty. Jerry Bruno, the best advanceman from the 1960 JFK campaign, was deployed to the Lincoln Memorial with instructions to pull the plug on the sound system if any speech turned incendiary.
Instead, the only people arrested were four segregationist protesters. The police blotter was instead filled with stories of briefly lost children and a woman from Newark, N.J., who tumbled into the shallow reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial and was instantly rescued from its 30-inch depths.
Even without the “I have a dream” speech, the March on Washington would still be commemorated as an epic milestone in the still incomplete quest for racial justice. But Martin Luther King’s oratory (the only King speech ever broadcast on television in its entirety in his lifetime) has made this 50th anniversary week an apt moment to gauge how far America has traveled toward fulfilling his dream.
Almost all questions about the arc of racial progress and social equity in the past half a century lend themselves to complicated answers that begin, “Yes, but on the other hand” and “The glass is half full.” In many ways, the elimination of all legal barriers to African-American achievement would have been uplifting to the original marchers. But the economic problems still afflicting many black Americans would seem all too familiar to the 1963 civil rights crusaders.
At the 1963 March on Washington, Jackie Robinson spoke and the first black airline stewardess was introduced. Now the “firsts” extend to the Oval Office. And for the ultimate white establishment posts of secretary of state and national security adviser to the president, we have reached our “seconds” for African-Americans.
Another lasting achievement over the past 50 years has been the forging of a vibrant black upper middle class, even though these numbers still lag behind whites. More than 10 percent of African-American families earned more than $100,000 in 2011. Today, nearly 40 percent of all black men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 are pursuing higher education.
Social mores have dramatically changed. Overt bigotry is no longer tolerated in respectable settings. The racially tinged jokes that were a staple of white country club golf outings and blue-collar bowling leagues are fast vanishing. Every day another Archie Bunker dies and another white 18-year-old who has been schooled in tolerance since birth registers to vote.
Make no mistake — grave injustices still endure.
An African-American is three times more likely to live in poverty than his or her white counterpart. Segregated neighborhoods, failing inner city schools and a wildly disproportionate chance that a black male will wind up in prison all contribute to America’s lingering racial divide. In addition, the collapse of housing prices in the Great Recession particularly devastated black families who tend to have few assets beyond the value of their homes.
The sad reality is that the political system provides scant hope that these problems will be solved or ameliorated through governmental action. No economic catastrophe or years of stagnation can shake Republican faith that the free market is the only solution for life’s ills. And even the Democrats, since the early days of Bill Clinton, publicly obsess about the hard-working middle class — and not those mired in poverty.
Polling on racial issues is tricky since few white Americans are willing to admit their prejudices and small changes in question wording can yield far different answers. Still, according to a national survey this month by the Pew Research Center, it is telling that nearly 80 percent of white Americans admit that more has to be done to realize Dr. King’s dream of racial equality. Of course, there is little political consensus on how to get there. But, at least, the poll reflects awareness of America’s unfinished obligation to erase the lingering residues of segregation and slavery.
Fifty years ago, a primary goal of the March on Washington was safeguarding the voting rights of black Americans.
That is why one of the most heartening political statistics from the 2012 election is that, for the first time in history, African-Americans were more likely to cast a ballot than whites or Hispanics. That is also why one of the most depressing political stories of this year is that the Supreme Court in June eviscerated a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Equally worrisome is that in the past few years Republicans have been aggressive in imposing new barriers to voting, especially requiring photo identification. With scant evidence of fraud to justify these new state laws, the obvious consequence is to discourage impoverished voters (who tend to be disproportionately black) who lack middle-class ID documents such as driver’s licenses and passports.
In the old days under Jim Crow in the South, blacks were prevented from exercising their right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment because of the color of their skin. Today’s voting gamesmanship is political rather than racial in origin. But for a black welfare mother turned away from the polls in Cleveland because she lacks a driver’s license, it is a distinction without a difference.
One hundred fifty years ago in 1863, the Civil War was raging, the graves were newly dug at Gettysburg and the Emancipation Proclamation was less than a year old. One hundred years ago in 1913, liberal Democratic President Woodrow Wilson presided over the segregation of the federal workforce in Washington. And 50 years ago, clergymen, labor leaders, folk singers and citizens of good will — black and white — made history with what was then probably the largest peaceful demonstration in American history.
Since colonial history and the arrival of the first slave ships from Africa, America has been riven by race. Freedom and slavery were the questions that defined the 19th century, and civil rights became the great moral struggle of the 20th century. The dream of the 21st century is that America will finally become the colorblind society defined by the words “all men are created equal.”