Twenty short years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. led about 200,000 of us in a massive civil rights rally in Washington. On Aug. 28, 1963, King made the nation's spirits soar with his vision of what America should be.
This year, on Saturday, Aug. 27, we will rally again in his memory. It is good that we do this. It will give the millions of Americans who were then unborn or who are now too young to remember a sense of the meaning and the drama of that day 20 years ago. For these young people, it will be an occasion to take part in restating our nation's commitment to the causes that consumed King: equal justice, equal opportunity, human rights. And for all of us, it will be a time to reflect on how far we have come out of the dark swamp of bigotry --and how far we still must travel to reach King's "sunlit path of racial justice."
We have made significant advances. In 1963, despite the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling, school segregation was pervasive. In the later '60s, the barriers began to crumble under the inspired, nonviolent leadership of King and his followers and under the decrees of courageous federal judges. But there are those today who would reopen old wounds by undoing those decrees and strip from those judges and their successors the authority to redress wrongs.
By 1963, King had integrated some public transportation, but restaurants, restrooms, water fountains, swimming pools and beaches were still segregated. King and other leaders persevered, and, in the face of violent opposition, they prevailed. The 1964 Civil Rights Act became law, opening up public accommodations and promising equal job and educational opportunities for all. But even as the rate of unemployment among minorities has soared to shameful levels and as job discrimination continues, affirmative action programs-- an effective remedy for these ills--are challenged by the very Justice Department to which we look for vindication of rights.
There were other hard-fought victories to guarantee rights and opportunities, guarantees that in 1963 did not exist.
Not until 1964 was there a constitutional amendment outlawing the poll tax, and it was a year later that the Voting Rights Act, the most effective civil rights legislation in history, became law.
Twenty years ago, there was no Medicaid. There were few nutrition programs, federal education programs, no legal services for the poor. There was no fair-housing law until after King's assassination. Perhaps all these programs would have been created had there been no King. Perhaps. But he above all others, acting as the conscience of the nation, persuaded Congress to confront the political, economic and social injustices that were shot through our society and to fashion solutions designed to benefit not only blacks but also the underfed, underprivileged and undereducated of all colors. These laws are a living memorial to him.
Not all these programs work perfectly, and I will not dwell on the obvious: that the imperfections have furnished excuses for efforts to gut them rather than to improve them. Instead of marching toward the "sunlit path," we have had to struggle merely to mark time.
But there was one long step that was taken last year in the advance toward that path. We strengthened and extended the Voting Rights Act --over the strident opposition of an administration that would now clutch it in sudden embrace.
The effectiveness of this law is readily apparent. Since its original enactment, the number of black elected officials has quadrupled. In 1963, there were five black members of Congress. Today, there are 20. Today, black mayors govern in some of our greatest cities, where 20 years ago they might have been denied the right to vote. Minorities in ever-increasing numbers are asserting their right to register and vote and to have that vote counted.
The import of this is not lost on the people and the politicians. The 1984 minority vote looms large in the aspirations (or fears) of many candidates.
King taught, in his nonviolent way, that the use of the power of politics and public office was the way to equal justice. Getting laws on the books is important. So is moral persuasion.
Implementation of the law, however, depends above all on political action. As one writer has put it: "Racial compassion (has) to be enforced with old-fashioned political quid pro quo."
Recent elections and massive voter registration show that, more than ever, minorities are determined to be taken seriously in the political process.
The spirit of King lives on in these efforts. They shot down the man, but they could not shoot down his dream, a dream that was stronger than life and more powerful than his death.
As a tribute to the man and his dream, the House of Representatives has overwhelmingly voted to declare the third Monday in January a national holiday. I hope that the Senate will swiftly follow suit and that the president will see fit to sign this into law.
This holiday would be an enduring expression of our dedication to the principles that King preached and for which he died. Our march on Aug. 27 will further sustain the spirit of this great leader.