WASHINGTON—August 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, but Trayvon Martin’s death and Voter ID laws have sent somber reminders that the march is not over and the people’s movement has more to do.
“As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, this year, many of the principles Dr. King and the multicultural coalition of people who joined him, are being challenged today,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
Fudge spoke at A Conversation on Race and Justice in America, a hearing on July 30, organized by the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
A key provision of the Voting Rights Act had been overturned, programs that addressed gaps in educational, economic and health inequities had been attacked, and racial profiling, violence and inequitable treatment under the law was evident, she said, adding that there remains little serious discussion of the issues.
“We have a nation of people dealing with the consequences of opportunity being eroded in the forms of overt institutional and structural injustice – but few people are willing to discuss these issues in a productive and constructive way,” Fudge said in a written statement.
Witness Maya Wiley, founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion, said different perceptions about racial inequality contribute to the silence.
According to a recent Pew Research survey, 78 percent of black people believe there should be a discussion about race in the light of the Zimmerman acquittal, compared to just 28 percent of white people.
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Negative racial attitudes have increased, according to Wiley. She referred to a 2012 Associated Press report that found 51 percent of Americans express anti-black attitudes compared with 48 percent in a similar survey in 2008.
“It appears we are becoming a nation with more negative attitudes toward black Americans,” she said in a written statement.
CBC members remained largely quiet during the trial of George Zimmerman but the verdict has propelled them to speak out. To them, years after the American civil rights movement, the nation’s criminal justice system still fails black Americans.
Incarceration rates for black men are the highest of any other group the Center for American Progress reported in 2012. Black students face harsher punishments in school, are arrested far more often, and have higher rates of juvenile incarceration.
One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics.
Members of Congress are drafting a variety of proposals, which they hope will rein in racial profiling, cut state Stand Your Ground laws, focus on better training for neighborhood watch volunteers, and offer other anti-violence measures.
March to Washington
Carole Blair, professor of rhetorical studies at the University of North Carolina, believes some of the failure to address racial inequality can be traced back to that historic day on Aug. 28, 1963.
The focus of that day remains Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, she said. While it remains among the greatest of American speeches, its success, in many ways, has drawn attention away from surrounding issues.
“We forget the things he also said that day that were not about lyrical beauty, things that were about people who were exiles in their own land, who had basic mobility from a small ghetto to a larger one—that was their only mobility—and that they were facing a mountain of despair,” she said in a discussion at the Newseum July 29 titled Media, Memory and the March on Washington.
Although racial inequality and discrimination were widespread at that time, events in the South during 1963 exposed a brutality that shocked the nation. Black Americans were segregated in every aspect of their lives—schools, transport and employment included. They were also prevented from voting through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other discriminatory procedures.
When they protested with sit-ins and gatherings, they were beaten harshly, and injustice was repeated in the courts.
When television news reports broadcast video of black school children who were set upon by dogs and knocked down with fire hoses when protesting segregation in schools, it galvanized people to action.
Over 250,000 people, black, white, young and old, arrived in Washington for the March, the largest gathering of people that had ever assembled on the mall.
The Civil Rights Movement gained landmark legislation soon after: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in employment and accommodation based on “race, color, religion, or national origin,” the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and in 1968 the Fair Housing Act which banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.
“I couldn’t be sitting here today if there wasn’t some progress,” said Dr. Catherine Squires, associate professor of communication at Minnesota University, speaking at the Newseum.
Squires said she was opting for a positive view of the future, encouraged by the response of young people to Trayvon Martin’s death, the Stand Your Ground Laws, and the Voter ID Laws.
“I see a lot my students in Minnesota and I see a lot of people around the country saying ‘Enough is enough, we can’t be in the 21st century and have this happening.’”
She said they had “relearned the lesson” about the importance of people. “We don’t need to have a charismatic leader, we need to have the people,” she said.