Fifty years ago this week, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial and delivered the now-legendary “I Have a Dream” speech that helped to galvanize that era’s civil rights movement.
President Barack Obama on Aug. 28, 2013—the anniversary of King’s speech—stood at the same spot to remember that moment and to remind the nation of what he believes remains to be done to ensure civil rights for all Americans.
Before thousands gathered on the Washington Mall, Obama lauded the gains civil rights activists made half a century ago, but also said that economic equality and decent working conditions for all Americans remain “our great unfinished business.”
Taking aim at “special interests” that oppose a minimum wage increase—as well as policies that prevent “livable housing, old age security and health and welfare measures” for working and middle-class Americans—the president said “it’s long this second dimension of economic opportunity—the chance for honest toil to advance one’s station in life—where the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short.”
The commemoration of 1963’s March on Washington began Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, as tens of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall to listen to political and civil rights leaders reflect on racial progress during the last half-century. Speakers included the Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. The gathering was part of several anniversary events scheduled in the city the week of Aug. 26-30, organized under the theme “Marching Forward by Looking Back” and sponsored by Sharpton’s National Action Network, the NAACP and King III.
Around the Country
Many other commemorative marches and events have also been planned across the country, including a writers’ workshop, debates between Republican and Democratic leaders on the state of civil rights in America, and speeches about the experiences and roles of black women in the U.S.
“Dr. King’s dream was simple and profound, enough to change the world,” said Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “And in 50 short years, we’ve moved from a society that openly embraced bigoted views about members of different racial groups to one in which ‘racist’ is a universally despised term.”
Anniversary organizers assert that, while the country has made great strides toward civil rights since 1963, more needs to be done. For example, they noted, the U.S. Supreme Court this year overturned parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required nine states to seek federal approval to change their election laws. The Voting Rights Act prohibits discrimination in voting.
“I think our biggest challenge today is being honest with ourselves and having the courage to notice the prejudicial attitudes and reactions that all of us still harbor, to some degree,” Peterson said. “Because noticing these attitudes is the only way to stop them from impacting our behaviors and to create the kind of society that Dr. King was dreaming about.”
In a blog on the “Marching Forward by Looking Back” website, Angella Current-Felder wrote that in 1963, during her sophomore year at Baltimore’s Morgan State College—now Morgan State University—she and 350 students were arrested and jailed during civil rights demonstrations.
“Despite all the accomplishments we have made over these past 50 years, we will not allow the decision of the Supreme Court or a segment of this society to turn us back to the days of Jim Crow,” she wrote. “Too many died for the right to vote and to integrate American society.” Current-Felder was referring to so-called “Jim Crow laws” enacted between 1876 and 1965 that required racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy.
On the same blog, David Vlahov wrote that he was 11 years old and living in D.C. when his father took him and his brother to the 1963 march.
“My father said that this was an important day, a day toward making things right,” he wrote. “We couldn't find our group, so we marched with the sanitation workers from a southern state. We were uplifted, energized, proud, committed, and saw more clearly the vision of equality, opportunity and justice. This was burned into my soul and has shaped my life. The struggle continues.”
Arnold Krupat wrote that he was 21 years old in 1963 when he boarded a bus from New York with union organizers and civil rights activists.
“Coming into D.C., past poor black neighborhoods with people on their porches cheering produced an unbelievable feeling,” Krupat wrote. “As we got off the bus—and there were buses parked as far as I could see—an older black man who'd got off another bus came up to me and, with a big smile, asked if I had a match. I apologized profusely, saying that I didn't smoke. He hugged me, smiled, and said, ‘Bless you, son.’ The atmosphere was that charged. I heard a white guy named Dylan sing; I heard a group called Peter, Paul and Mary sing. And I heard a black preacher named King, a name I didn't recognize, say ‘I have a dream!’ ”
On the way back to New York, Krupat wrote, the bus he was riding in was shot at from a Virginia overpass.
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.