The peaceful march drew more than 200,000 people to Washington on a sweltering summer day. It is rightly remembered as one of the most uplifting moments of the civil rights movement, and as others have said, it is the most famous mass rally in U.S. history.
But as the nation prepares to commemorate the event, it is useful to recall its origins, ambitions and legacy and to remember which of the organizers’ objectives have been fulfilled and which have not.
The country has made significant racial progress since the March on Washington. When President Obama gives an address Wednesday on the 50th anniversary of the event, his mere presence will speak volumes about the racial barriers that have been broken. As he has acknowledged, he owes a debt to those who fought for the rights that made his presidency possible.
Some of those gains began with the passage of legislation in the years immediately after the march. That included laws banning discrimination in public accommodations and housing and protecting voting rights for African Americans, although other events contributed much to the climate that brought about passage of those measures.
But for all that progress, sizable gaps remain between white and black America, especially in areas of wealth, income, poverty and economic opportunity. Those challenges, as much as the successes of the civil rights movement, are likely to be brought back to the forefront this week. Whether that stimulates renewed debate on the causes and possible cures remains in question.
The 1963 march was the result of the confluence of two ambitions. The idea for it originated with Randolph, who led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters labor organization and had pressed for decades to improve the economic plight of an impoverished black population. But the event took shape in the aftermath of demonstrations led by King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in the spring of 1963 in the segregated city of Birmingham, Ala.
The Birmingham demonstrations turned violent when Bull Connor, the city’s public safety commissioner, ordered police to set upon the demonstrators with snarling dogs and high-powered fire hoses. Television networks and newspapers carried images and reports from Birmingham that spread outrage nationwide.
Although the rally was called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the cause of civil rights would quickly overshadow the focus on economic parity. And King’s remarkable speech has eclipsed almost everything else that was said that day.
“At the time, the speech was seen as a great speech, but not the singular expression of the march as it’s come to be known,” said William Jones, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of the book “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.” The fact that King’s speech is the only one remembered today, he added, “gives us a very warped vision of what the march was about.”
The gathering proved to be a brief, but hopeful, interlude between outbreaks of violence and expressions of racial hatred. Within weeks, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. A little more than two months later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the cause of civil rights in part to pay tribute to Kennedy’s memory.
In the half a century since those tumultuous days, progress has been evident in many places. African Americans now vote in percentages nearly as high or in some cases higher than whites, including in some of the states of the Confederacy. Education levels for blacks have increased demonstrably, although they still lag behind those of whites. A thriving black middle and upper-middle class has expanded significantly.
But economic divisions remain. “We talk about income inequality,” said Signe-Mary McKernan of the Urban Institute, “but the racial wealth gap is much larger.”
White families have accumulated wealth worth about six times that of black families. White incomes top black incomes by an average of two to one. Over the past two decades, those gaps have changed little.
Unemployment differentials are largely unchanged from the 1960s. Whether in good times or bad, African Americans are about twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts. Blacks raised in middle-class surroundings are far more likely to slip down the economic ladder than are whites.
“We still have two largely separate Americas,” said historian David Garrow, author of “Bearing the Cross,” a history of the King years and the civil rights movement. “The fact that tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of upper-middle-class Americans have managed to access privileged America should not at all distract our attention from people — and not just blacks — in this country who do not have educational or economic opportunity.”
Meanwhile, there are new conflicts over voting rights. Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court neutered the most important section of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 required many states and local jurisdictions in the Old South, and some others, to gain pre-clearance from the Justice Department before changing voting laws.
The court said discrimination has not ended but ruled that the criteria that determined which states were covered under pre-clearance were out of date. At the same time, many African Americans, and others, view efforts by a number of state legislatures to enact voter identification laws and other new regulations as aimed directly at their community.
The country is in a far different place today, its ambitions tempered by limited budgets, by the frustrations and failures of past efforts to alleviate some of these problems and by deep political divisions. Obama’s speech will be closely examined for how he interprets the meaning of the march and how he deals with problems that most afflict African Americans without appealing for solutions considered racially based.
Many of those who will be in Washington this week say the commemoration of the march should not be a celebration. “It’s very important not just to commemorate the march but to have us recognize that we’re 50 years away from that event and if we examine progress, it’s clearly a mixed blessing,” said Margaret Simms of the Urban Institute.
Robert Dallek, who has written histories of the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, quoted one of his mentors, the late historian Richard Hofstadter, as saying that “America is the only country that believes it was born perfect and strives for improvement.” As far as the country has come in the 50 years since the March on Washington, much remains to be done — as it always has.