Fifty years after the March on Washington, Online Features Editor Meg Lawrence discusses its impact, and where the civil rights movement stands in America today.
When I was 11 years old, I was asked by my English teacher to write a speech about my hero. Martin Luther King’s was a name that stood apart; he was fundamental to the American civil rights movement, and was a key catalyst for equality. It is arguable that Martin Luther King was one of the most important social leaders of his time, and his legacy is awe-inspiring.
Perhaps one of the most memorable and metamorphic moments for the civil rights movement was King’s March on Washington, and the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, both of which occurred fifty years ago this week, on August 28, 1963. So significant was this event, it is credited for helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Speaking at the fiftieth anniversary event, former US President Bill Clinton said: ‘This march, and that speech, changed America.’
Martin Luther King grew up in the midst of the injustice caused by the Jim Crow Laws, lighting a spark in him that would burn all the way to Washington. King’s first true experience of social inequality was when he was forced to attend a different school to the white friends he had grown up with, and was forbidden from going to their houses. One boy’s childhood experience was enough to incur the momentous March on Washington 30 years later.
The Words ‘I Have a Dream’ have entered history as one of the most important phrases of all time. Martin Luther King had a dream of racial equality throughout America and the world, and today, fifty years after he voiced his dream, racial equality has largely improved.
It is undeniable that the appointment of America’s first black President, Barack Obama, was a key moment in the history of racial equality, and marked a key turning point in the civil rights movement. Speaking in Washington on the anniversary of King’s march, Obama said: ‘America changed for you and me.’
He added: ‘Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.’
Whilst change has certainly been praised throughout coverage of the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the March on Washington, the anniversary itself highlights the fact that there are still many areas of society where complete racial equality is yet to be achieved. President Obama, whilst heading the White House, has been unable to implement the policy he promised due to a lack of support and confidence in his benefactors in government.
On 6th August of this year, upon making a speech on housing and education in Arizona, President Obama faced racist chants. Among the protesters, some sang ‘Bye Bye Black Sheep’, whilst protesters such as Deanne Bartram raised a sign saying, ‘Impeach the Half-White Muslim!’
A report featured on USA Today’s website this week highlights further examples of racism that reflect the same treatment of black Americans fifty years ago. This summer, 25 black customers were refused service in a Wild Wing Café, after a white customer said they made them feel uncomfortable. Whilst this is a rare occurrence, it is evidence of the fact that racism hasn’t been abolished in the US.
Fifty years ago, the hunger for racial equality filled the air surrounding Washington, and dispersed throughout America. Whilst we have used the anniversary to celebrate Martin Luther King, and the progression of the civil rights movement, it is also important to use it to remind ourselves that we need to push for more; the fight has not yet been won, and the dream is not complete. We still need to look to the day when all people can say, “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.”
Ten years ago, I named Martin Luther King as my hero. If asked again today, I would give the same reply.
Meg Lawrence, Online Features Editor