By George E. Curry
WASHINGTON—After repeatedly praising Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for leading a movement in the 1950s and 1960s that demolished America’s apartheid-like treatment of African Americans, President Obama told those attending an observance of the 1963 March on Washington Aug. 28 that making sure blacks and whites are on the same economic level is America’s “great unfinished business.”
Obama, the nation’s first black president, spoke candidly on Wednesday about the need to eliminate the last vestiges of racial discrimination.
“And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life,” President Obama said. “The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call—this remains our great unfinished business.”
Obama headlined an array of speakers that included two former presidents—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton; Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), the lone surviving speaker of the 1963 March on Washington; civil rights leaders Al Sharpton (National Action Network), Marc Morial (National Urban League), Charles Steele (SCLC), Benjamin Jealous (NAACP); King children Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice King; King aides Andrew Young and Joseph Lowery and celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Jamie Foxx.
Like other speakers, President Obama dismissed claims that little progress has been made over the past 50 years, pointing to his election and the rise of black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies as examples of black advancement.
“We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time,” Obama said. “But, we would do well to recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV.
“Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, had lived in towns where they couldn’t vote, in cities where their votes didn’t matter. There were couples in love who couldn’t marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire-hosed. And they had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.
“And, yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglass once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.”
Given such sacrifice, President Obama said, it would be an insult to their memory to minimize the progress that came about as a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement.
“And because they kept marching, America changed. 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,” President Obama said as the crowd cheered.
One of those who kept marching was John Lewis, then-chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and, at 23, the youngest person to speak at the march on Aug. 28, 1963. Catholic leaders in the civil rights coalition who had seen a draft of Lewis’ speech threatened to withdraw from the march if he were allowed to deliver it as written.
In the early version, Lewis called a civil rights bill backed by the John F. Kennedy administration “too little, too late” and questioned the administration’s devotion to civil rights. Lewis had planned to say, “We won’t stop now. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett and Wallace and Thurmond won’t stop this revolution. The next time we march, we won’t march on Washington, but we will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.”
Under heavy pressure from the elder statesmen in the movement, Lewis toned down his language. But on Wednesday, the Georgia congressman was not mincing words.
“Fifty years later, we can ride anywhere we want to ride, we can stay where we want to stay,” he said. “Those signs that said ‘white’ and ‘colored’ are gone. And you won’t see them anymore—except in a museum, in a book, on a video…
“The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin’s case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights.”
The Rev. Bernice King, the slain human rights leader’s daughter and primary organizer of Aug. 28 commemorative service on the Mall, said: “We are still chained by economic disparities, class inequalities and conditions of poverty for many of God’s children in this nation and around the world. If we are going to continue the struggle for freedom and create true community, then we will have to be relentless in exposing, confronting and ridding ourselves of the mindset of pride, and greed, and selfishness, and hate, and lust, and fear, and idleness, and lack of purpose and lack of love as my brother said for our neighbor.”
National Urban League President Marc Morial warned against complacency.
“It is time, America, to wake up,” he said. “Fifty years ago, that sleeping giant was awakened, but somewhere along the way we’ve dozed. We’ve been quelled by the lullaby of false prosperity and the mirage of economic equality. We fell into a slumber. Somewhere along the way, white sheets were traded for button-down white shirts. Attack dogs and water hoses were traded for Tasers and widespread implementation of stop-and-frisk policies. Nooses were traded for handcuffs.”
Al Sharpton, who led a larger march on Saturday, pledged to attack different variations of Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow, named after a popular 19th century minstrel song that stereotyped blacks, were local and state laws, mostly in the Southern states of the old Confederacy, that mandated rigid racial segregation in all public facilities from shortly after the Civil War to the mid-1960s.
“We came as the children of Dr. King to say we are going to face Jim Crow’s children because Jim Crow had a son called James Crow Jr., Esquire. He writes voting suppression laws in language that looks different but the results are the same. They come with laws that tell people to stand their ground. They come with laws that tell people to stop-and-frisk. But I came to tell you that just like our mothers and fathers beat Jim Crow, we will beat James Crow Jr., Esquire.”
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.
Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4 print edition.