The Unfinished Struggle: Civil Rights and the March on Washington

On August 28th, America will commemorate the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was one of the largest political protest gatherings in U.S. History, attracting roughly a quarter million people to Washington D.C. Though the demonstration was motivated by the urgent concerns of civil and economic rights for African Americans, the initial idea for the march was prompted by the efforts of labor organizer A. Philip Randolph during the early 1940s. Randolph along with James Farmer (president of Congress of Racial Equality), John Lewis (chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Martin Luther King, Jr. (president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Roy Wilkins (president of the NAACP), and Whitney Young (president of the National Urban League) organized the 1963 march and it was there that King delivered his famed “I Have a Dream” speech promoting racial equality. The March on Washington has been credited with helping to spur the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Memorials, rallies, and tributes, thus, have been planned to mark the occasion, and citizens across the country will converge on the nation’s capital for a symbolic march from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial. There will be many reasons to celebrate: from the visible signs of racial advancement that affirmative action programs and civil rights legislation have triggered to the victory that ushered the first black President into the White House. Yet by any qualitative or quantifiable measure, African Americans have discovered the quest for racial equality to be elusive over the past half-century.

In June 2013, just as plans were being formulated for observing the anniversary of the 1963 march, civil rights icons and event coordinators learned that the Supreme Court of the United States struck down Section 5 of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. The verdict reflected not only the Court’s ideological divide but also the discrepancy in both sides’ historical reading of the outcomes of the civil rights movement.

The Supreme Court is split over whether and to what degree the movement has successfully attained its goals. Chief Justice John Roberts accentuated this ideological and interpretive divide by contending that “our country has changed.” His terse statement invalidates the belief by more liberal members of the Court that racial minorities continue to face barriers in voting inside states where there has been a history of discrimination. It also potentially exacerbates the problem of underrepresentation for black elected officials who account for a dismal 1.7% of the total elected officials in the country.

The voting rights ruling was preceded by an earlier 7-1 decision by the Court to remand the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case back to a lower court. The Supreme Court asked the lower court to evaluate whether or not the University of Texas’s goal to achieve diversity are narrowly tailored to that goal. “Strict scrutiny imposes on the university the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy emphasized in his opinion written on behalf of the majority. Doubtless, many affirmative action advocates see Kennedy’s declaration as a threat to race-conscious admissions at public universities.

Aside from these judicial setbacks, African Americans have also confronted economic, educational, and jurisprudential injustices that have mitigated against their fight for equal treatment. While African Americans comprise less than 13% of the population, black prisoners constitute 1 million of the 2.3 million inmates incarcerated—a crisis that has compelled legal scholar Michelle Alexander and others to refer to mass incarceration as America’s “new Jim Crow.” Particularly troubling is the large number of blacks arrested for non-violent offenses, most of which stem from illicit drug use. African Americans represent 13% of the population but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses and 59% of those jailed in state prisons as part of a so-called war on drugs.

Researchers at John Hopkins have claimed that 38% of African Americans attend “dropout factories,” that is, schools where the typical freshmen class shrinks by 40% by the time students reach their senior year. Meanwhile, black high school students have the lowest graduation rates of any racial group at 66.1%, and many attend dilapidated, underperforming schools.

Black impoverishment also continues to be disaster giving rise to social ills such as crime, high infant mortality rates, and inadequate access to healthcare. As of 2010, African Americans comprised over 27.4 % of those persons living in poverty compared to only 9.9% for non-Hispanic whites, and 38.4% of black children under the age of eighteen are considered poor. The numbers are equally disconcerting when it comes to unemployment as the jobless rate for African Americans was 13.7% as of July 2013 in contrast to the 7.6% reported for the rest of the country.

These disturbing statistics expose the ongoing racial disparities that have persisted over the past half century causing some persons to believe that the March on Washington and the accompanying civil rights movement was a failure.

This dim view of the march, however, overlooks the original goals desired by King and his coterie of freedom fighters, namely Randolph and Rustin. While King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has iconicized the 1963 march, it was economic opportunity and a sense that African Americans were mired in an unfinished struggle for freedom that compelled the demonstration.

Randolph and Rustin.
Randolph and Rustin

Randolph and Rustin (pictured here) envisioned the march as a response to black joblessness and privation. During the 1960s, African Americans fretted over the same economic dilemmas that urged Randolph to threaten a march on Washington in 1941 to challenge discrimination in wartime industries. Then-President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 banning racial discrimination in the national defense industry and establishing the short-lived Committee on Fair Employment Practice. Roosevelt’s order was enough to prompt Randolph to call off the march. Two decades later, it was revived with the purpose of building a broad coalition for civil rights and economic empowerment.

Even King’s speech, remembered for its clamor for racial egalitarianism, placed the push for jobs and rights under the national spotlight, and he reminded Americans of the previous century of letdown African Americans had experienced. King alluded to the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in his opening remarks calling it a “momentous decree” that “came as a joyous daybreak” to blacks. But he quickly acknowledged that “100 years later the Negro is still not free.”

King underpinned his damning critique that “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’” by reflecting on the tumultuous lived experienced of African Americans. He concluded that they lived “on a lonely island of poverty,” suffered “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” and traveled only “from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” The keen sense of racial optimism teeming in the speech with its cries to “let freedom ring” was balanced by his conviction that the protest march was to be “not an end but a beginning” in the enduring battle to engender “an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”

The ensuing campaigns and demonstrations nationwide echoed King’s vision and radical elements of the movement like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had further plans for sit-ins on Capitol Hill and at the Justice Department.

These tactics, nonetheless, were aborted in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the posthumous passing of the landmark civil rights bill he had submitted the previous summer ahead of the march. By the time of King’s death, the movement had splintered and the march was merely cast as a moral cause fulfilled by the legal and legislative battles won during the countercultural decade rather than as a labor-civil rights union.

More than half a century later, African Americans are situated on the same racial precipice upon which King, Randolph, and Rustin stood and remain at the beginning of an uncompleted campaign for dignity and better opportunities. Progress has been anything but unbroken and some of the same inequitable economic, racial, and social conditions that occasioned upwards of 250,000 Americans to rally for jobs and freedom remain unresolved.

Violence has always acted as a leitmotif of the civil rights crusade and the unpunished killing of Trayvon Martin has galvanized a countrywide movement against the devastating patterns of racial injustice that linger.

Yet, if African Americans are to find success in what some are terming a new civil rights movement, they must also attach themselves to the objectives established by the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, and should expand these aims to include gender and sexual justice.

The 1963 March on Washington was no conclusion, it was a commencement. Likewise, this anniversary ought not to be just a commemoration, but also a continuation that presses further toward the hopeful day of an invigorating autumn of freedom of equality.