With 50th anniversary of the seminal March on Washington, local academics and historical authors have weighed in on not just the impact of the anniversary, but also the status of civil rights 40 years after the tide-changing march that culminated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech.”
Dr. George Ciccariello-Maher, assistant professor of political science at Drexel University, teaches and writes about socio-political movements, race and the justice system. Ciccariello-Maher says this years’ anniversary will be heightened by recent developments regarding civil rights. Undoubtedly, Ciccariello-Maher said, the case involving Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman will shape any discourse – but can only lead to substantive changes if the “old guard” approves.
“Any commemorations of the Civil Rights Movement this year will refer inevitably to Trayvon Martin as the symbol of unfulfilled demands for justice. However, if the movements developing around Martin’s death are tied too tightly to the Civil Rights old guard, they are not likely to take off in a powerful way,” Ciccariello-Maher said. “These movements will only take off if they do so on their own merits, by developing organic young leadership that is not beholden to political or party interests, and which recognizes a fundamental truth of the Civil Rights Movement: that their strength lies more in the streets than in the halls of power.”
The march 50 years ago conveyed startling messages from minority communities on a number of issues once only whispered or thought to be taboo. The march acted as a monumental beacon to which the world tuned in and issues took center stage. For the first time in history, minorities were giving a national platform with international reach to tell their stories and vent their angst.
Indeed, the whole world watched.
“The March on Washington provided one of the most significant series of political speeches regarding individual rights in United States history. The March had enormous impact because it communicated the importance of civil rights, not only to the audience present that day, but to those who watched and read about it at the time, and those who continue to hearken back to the historic events of that day,” said Dr. William L. Rosenberg, a political science professor and director of Drexel University’s Survey Research Center. “After 50 years, it continues to be viewed as an event that resonates domestically and internationally in terms of civil and human rights.”
While minorities have made gains in the half century since that march – efforts culminating, perhaps, in the election of the first African-American man to the office of President of the United States of America – some argue that minorities have lost much more than they gained in the 50 years since.
In fact, one has to only point to a still uneven – and some would say, outright racist – judicial
system for proof of the rough road that still lies ahead in terms of racial equality.
“The 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington stands as a moment to reckon our past with our present and future. Recalling that Dr. King explained ‘the Dream’ of racial equality, tolerance and inclusiveness remains a centerpiece for our discussions. But, our recognition of Dr. King’s shining moment in the Civil Rights era, should give us pause to reflect on the post-Civil Rights era. The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the exposure of the NYPD’s racial profiling tactics and our investment, state and private, in mass incarceration reveals that Dr. King’s dream for racial and economic progress remains just that: A dream,” said Dr. Donald Tibbs, author of From Black Power to Prison Power: The Making of Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union. “Moving forward, however, our present social movements and spirited debate around America’s racial, legal and social ills reminds us that the power of change remains with the people; and that is the true legacy of the 1963 March on Washington.”
Aside from an unleveled justice system and the fact that Jim Crow laws wouldn’t be banned for at least two more years, it could be rather easy to forget the economic injustices that were rampant during King’s time. While some of those economic conditions have since eased over the last 50 years, minorities still find inequality in securing unionized apprenticeships and employment. Until those issues are resolved, experts contend, minorities will find themselves in the same place economically today as they were generations ago.
“For most of American history, outright racial discrimination kept good jobs out of the reach of black Americans. Today, black Americans face a less blatant, but equally difficult set of structural problems,” said Dr. Kevin Woodson, assistant professor of law at Drexel University. “Addressing these daunting structural inequalities would require substantial education reform, changes in our country’s approach to drug addiction and the punishment of low-level drug offenders, and, perhaps, greater job training programs that might help provide some workers valuable skills.”