50th Anniversary of the March: Beyond the Dream

Robert Devaney

The 50th Anniversary March on Washington—and all the attendant events, commemorations, celebrations leading up to Wednesday’s fewer than 100,000 gathering on the National Mall—was not the 2013 equivalent of the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

There was no way it could have been because that march and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech made history and changed history. The anniversary accomplished no such thing, nor was it likely to.

But Wednesday’s march and marchers, and singers of freedom songs, and speechafiers -- from Hollywood actor Jamie Foxx to many members of the King family, to President Barack Obama -- they all came together to recall, to memorialize, to remind us of just what a unique, epochal event the 1963 march was, and of the the dangerous, contentious, seriously unequal and unjust world and country in which it took place, the parameters of which are difficult to imagine today.

What happened on the National Mall and at the Lincoln Memoria this week was a kind of bearing witness, and forms of truth-telling about a time-and-place, it was a salute not only to the principal heroes of the civil rights movement but to everyone who marched, who shouted out, who spoke and wrote, and stood up arm in arm with others on that day, to everyone, really, who was there.

The anniversary march and its participants resurrected the first march, a march and gathering, followed by a searing, soaring speech by King, both of which were events and achievements notable for their total and transforming originality. People did not always know or fully understand what had happened that day, and this anniversary march and the presence and words of the memorializers, the surviving witnesses, the children and grandchildren, the offspring of that day and time present on the mall made sure we understood, hitched that day to this day, and tried to re-ignite some of its aspirational spirit into the unfinished and unfulfilled business of King’s dream. This went on, even as those trying to enter through the one access point on 17th Street to the reflecting pool area waited for hours.

President Obama in a speech that in no way matched King’s, nevertheless, made the best case for King’s speech and for the events of 50 years ago, as did Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the only survivor of the so-called Big Ten members, organizers and speech makers of that day. “You could not sit at lunch counters, you could not sit in the front of the bus, you could not drink out of the same water fountains,” Lewis thundered. “All that is gone. Those signs that read whites only, those signs are gone,” he reminded us.

The president, too, noted the tremendous effect of that day—that it came amid the violent upheavals of the push-back from Southern politicians against the surging efforts of the civil rights movement. He noted that Medgar Evers had been assassinated two months earlier in 1963, and that only weeks after the march, there came the bombings and killings of four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

“Much has changed, and they accomplished incredible things,” Obama said. “Don’t ever say anything different. To say that the dream is unfulfilled in no way diminished the achievements of Dr. King.”

Yet, that polling of dissatisfaction persisted into many of the speeches, most of which were full of calls to action, and the climate of the times, about the grievous wounding of the Voting Rights Act, about Treavon Martin, about the widening gap between the poor and the rich and the closing of doors to the middle class, about, about crime and incarceration, about frisk and search and stand your ground laws. There was a note that was both plaintive and angry, as if, because aspects of racism and injustice remained, that it was all in vain. “The marchers, Dr. King, the Kennedys, Medgar Evers, those girls, did not die in vain,” the president said. He suggested that everyone pick up their marching shoes—teachers, workers, laborer and envisioned a time for marching now.

Everyone wondered what Dr. King might have done and often imagined what he would say. But that was, in the end, difficult to know. He was among the absent and missing and what was left, even the presence of three presidents seemed not to match the mountain that was Dr. King.

It seemed, seen on television, an occasion that was muted, the bells tolled at 3 p.m. for sure, and there were songs heard and impassioned pleas and word for action in an attempt to tie the days of 1963 to the present day. The crowd, seen from scanning cameras seemed more diverse, and was in actuality, less so. In 1963, moderate Republican leaders showed up for the march, but on this occasion, in keeping with the stalemate, oppose-oppose climate of the Senate and the House, GOP members were noted for the absence, as if commemoration and the accomplishments of 1963 were a partisan occasion. By their absence, they made it so, at least for themselves.

The times are and were different. “Change came,” Obama said, “It came in state legislatures in the south and city halls. It came to Congress and, yes, it came to the White House," as evidenced by himself.

President Bill Clinton recalled the day 50 years ago—it impressed and inspired and moved everyone in the whole country, “including a 17-year-old young man alone in a house in Arkansas.” He also noted the temperament of the times, and wondered “how some politicians want to make it so hard to vote and so easy to buy an AK-47.”

They all had their say—they marched, sometimes like ghosts, or like a member of a chorus where not everybody sang on key—Carter, Clinton and Obama, or Jimmy, Bill and Barack, not exactly like Martin, Bobby and John. The surviving members of Peter, Paul and Mary, (less Mary), sang “We Shall Overcome” in the company of Treavon Martin’s parents. Caroline Kennedy and Lynda Robb invoked their fathers, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

It drizzled all day long, in sharp contrast to the heat, and the fire of August 28, 1963. Everybody there today, made everybody then seem to move among us in spirit. On this occasion, we realized that while Dr. King had a dream, it was not just a dream.

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Thu, 30 Oct 2014 09:43:08 -0400

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