By Grant Beck, ERC Communications Associate
It’s a cloudless, sweltering day in August. Washington, D.C., is buzzing. The concrete of the Lincoln Memorial glows in the blistering sunshine. The Reflecting Pool is transformed from the image of a solitary monolith into a diverse sea of faces. More than one hundred thousand people from all walks of life have gathered at the feet of The Great Emancipator. Some wear buttons and pins. Many carry signs. All have a message. The mass is frustrated. Frustrated at a distinct lack of equality in this “land of opportunity.” Frustrated at a lack of jobs in their neighborhoods and cities. Frustrated at violence within, and against, their communities. Frustrated at the seemingly endless economic gap that separates them from the wealthiest Americans. They have come here to find a voice. A unified voice that speaks to the issues they face every day. A voice that assures them that they too have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Except, the year is not 1963. The year is 2013, fifty years after Dr. King boldly told the country of his dream for America. A dream that, it seems for now, remains just that. A dream.
On August 24, the National Action Network (NAN) led a rally and march from the Lincoln Memorial in honor of the famous March on Washington that took place in the nation’s capital 50 years ago. NAN collaborated with a highly diverse selection of organizations and advocacy groups for the daylong event, which included high-profile speakers, performers and civil rights icons, and concluded in a mass exodus from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.
More than 100,000 people traveled to the nation’s capital to commemorate the anniversary. From families with small children, to individuals who attended the original march in 1963, people came with hand-made signs, folding chairs, blankets and banners to celebrate one of the seminal events of the 20th century.
There was no shortage of timely topics to discuss for both speakers and the crowd. Signs and t-shirts bearing the image of 17-year-old Travyon Martin were everywhere. Martin’s untimely shooting death, and the resulting trial and acquittal of shooter George Zimmerman last month, brought controversial “stand your ground” laws to the forefront of the national civil rights conversation. Perhaps the most frequented topic for the day’s speakers was Shelby County v. Holder, the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Originally passed to stem the rampant voter discrimination and disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South, contemporary civil rights leaders believe the decision to strike down this provision will disproportionately and adversely affect minority voters. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), the only surviving organizer of the original 1963 March on Washington, gave the most impassioned call to defend the Voting Rights Act:
“I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama for the right to vote. I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us.”
Throughout the course of the day, a common theme emerged. A theme that has been woven into the fabric of American society and history ever since Dr. King stood at the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago.
We are not there yet.
Equality, be it racial, economic, social or legal, is still far off. The struggles of 1963 are not so different than the struggles of 2013. While discrimination and bigotry may not appear in the same blatant forms, they still present significant barriers to employment, housing and other facets of everyday life. Violence still threatens communities across the country. The disparity between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the country continues to grow.
Americans need to stop regarding the Civil Rights Movement as a fixed period in history. The struggle to ensure civil and equal rights for all Americans is ongoing, and it no longer just encompasses the journey for racial equality. The LGBT community, the disability community, the immigrant community and so many others still are confronting the specter of discrimination and struggle for American equality. We need to stand up to unjust laws. We need to hold legislators and leaders accountable for their actions. We need to educate communities and teach them their rights under the law. Those that marched in 1963 refused to remain passive. We need to continue their march forward.
Dr. King’s message still remains an echo in the halls of American history. Now is the time for everyone, not just civil rights leaders and advocates, to take the power of his words and create a lasting equality. Until that time, the dream will remain just that. A dream.