By April Ryan, aprildryan.com
This week is a time of reflections on matters of fairness, race and justice as there are commemorative activities marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Dr. Rosalyn Terbborg-Penn, University Professor Emerita, Morgan State University contends “The symbolism and the poetry came from Martin Luther King. But, the organization that pulled it together, organized by A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin are not remembered.” The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin “because President Kennedy was not ready to make any concessions,” according to Dr. Terbborg-Penn. Friday, President Obama by Proclamation said the Marchers five decades ago stirred the Nation’s “conscience and paved the way for two major victories of the Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
August 28, 1963, 250,000 people stood for hours at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to listen to a list of speakers. The crowd consisted of men, women, children, black, white, religious leaders, UAW Union members and everyday citizens. President Obama recently called the last living speaker from the March to talk about that day and what he said 50 years ago. By phone, Congressman John Lewis regaled the president about the day.
Lewis was a young 23-year old and leader of the National Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee when he spoke to the crowd about his views on freedom in America. About 4 minutes into his speech Lewis said, “We don’t want freedom gradually, we want freedom now.”
On the issue of jobs, 50 years ago there was no official Federal reporting by the Department of Labor statistics on the nation’s jobless numbers. But the data shows a historic trend in the disparity between white and black unemployment in this country. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 1963, the unemployment rate was 10.9% for blacks, 2.2 times the white rate of 5.0%. This data comes from a report, The Unfinished March: An Overview from the Institutes Unfinished March series, which details the work that remains to meet the economic goals of the march. The United States Census Bureau also has that 10.9% black unemployment number for 1963.
Dr. Terborg-Penn attended the march 50 years ago remembering “It was a fabulous event. Unfortunately the circumstances almost 50 years later are almost the same. Things change but things stay the same… Black people in particular, poor people also have made some gains but we are regressing at this point.” She believes the massive numbers of all ethnicities on the Mall put pressure on the lawmakers to help make change. Professor Terborg-Penn finds “by the 70’s things got a little better. I think folks were frightened by having all these people on the mall. ”
Dr. Martha Joynt Kumar, Towson State University Department of Political Science, at that time of the March was a young 20 something White Virginia resident, and remembers the “enormous number of people…I had never seen a march like it…Before hand there was much fear by people in Washington that it was going to be some kind of problem because there were so many people coming and they had not experience anything like it.” Washington is progressive and a city that attracts world attention but Kumar says “It was something very unusual for the city. I remember the calm, the purposefulness of the demonstrators, the way . She said everybody dressed up, ‘I dressed up’… it was a very important occasion and we new it at the time. ”
Kumar says the march set a benchmarks. “Where have we gained in the march for justice. I do think in the legal area we have made great gains. But, in the area of economic issues, ares of housing and others we haven’t! So, we need to remember just because segregation has been legally wiped out it doesn’t mean we have a just society.”
One of he highlights of the day, was the last speech by then 33-year old minister Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who addressed the crowd with a prepared speech where he talked about blacks receiving a check from the government stamped insufficient funds, and then the non-scripted portion known as “I Have a Dream.” Dr. Amos Brown, one of three Morehouse College students taught by Dr. King says “American must not have a fixation on those fine words, as eloquent and beautiful as they were. I think America should be responsible, held accountable and deal with what Dr. King dealt with in the first half of that speech.”
Brown believes people want to remember the poetry and not the meat of address. Brown sits on the National Board of the NAACP and says of the scripted portion of the King speech, “It was about the stark reality of injustices that were perpetrated against black people in areas of employment, education and equality of opportunity.”
Former Republican, Oklahoma Congressman, J.C. Watts, Chair of J.C Watts Companies was just six-years-old at the time of the historic March on Washington for jobs and Freedom. He says “I don’t think anybody can say we are really where we should be.”
Watts, recognizes the significant gains we as a people have made to include the first Black American President but Watts recognizes We still have poverty in what is the richest and what I believe is the greatest nation in the world. We still have 1.8 million kids drop out of school every year. Many of those kids are Americans of African descent. We still have Americans of African descent with businesses stuck in ruts. There is a lot of issues out there. We have to look at the models we use in dealing with these issues and then culturally we see a lot of cultural decay from Florida to Oklahoma to you name it. ”
Wednesday three American Presidents, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmie Carter will attend the Wednesday event at the Lincoln Memorial. Event organizers are prepared for bell ringing at 3 pm to mark the moment after Dr. King finished his historic speech almost a half century later. Former President George W. Bush was invited to the event but “is unable to be in Washington this week” according to his press person.
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