Tuesday marks the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington that featured the Rev. Martin Luther King’s electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech. That day, which drew a quarter of a million participants of many races to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., instantly transformed the very aesthetics of American democracy.
As a nation our racial progress since the march continues to proceed in fits and starts. Barack Obama’s presidency seemed, for many, the literal fulfillment of King’s dream of multiracial democracy free of racial injustice. America and the entire world proudly basked in the afterglow of Obama’s 2008 election, a victory that signaled — in a mere 45 years — the distance traveled from the nightmare history of Jim Crow and racial terror and violence.
The March on Washington represented perhaps the best public recognition of the intimate relationship between race and democracy during the twentieth century. King himself characterized the gathering as a chance to “make the promise of democracy real” for millions of disenfranchised citizens.
President Trump also recognizes the connection between race and democracy, playing on this history to shape brutally effective rhetorical narratives that appeal to ideas of racial disharmony. For Trump and white supporters of what was called “massive resistance” during the civil rights era, racial progress amounted to a zero-sum game where black advancement could only be achieved through the denigration of white identity, privilege and power.
The president’s recent tweet describing the South African government’s efforts at land reform as a sinister plot to seize land from white farmers is a virtual talking point among white nationalists, whose presence both domestically and internationally is eroding democratic norms around the world. Paul Krugman notes the acceleration of government corruption, ethical prevarication and efforts to suppress voting rights have poised America on the verge of “becoming another Poland or Hungary,” where one-party rule replaces genuine democracy.
The United States’ path toward progressive democracy has never proceeded in a linear fashion. The dramatic post-slavery reforms of the Reconstruction era — which included African American voting and citizenship rights — gave way to the so-called “Redeemer South” which featured an unapologetic embrace of white supremacy, terror and racial violence that gripped America well into the first half of the 20th century.
World War II’s efforts to defeat fascism abroad and racial segregation at home promised a New Deal for blacks that only partially came through, stymied by a Cold War political culture that sacrificed hard-won freedoms to defend against the larger perceived threat communism represented.
The civil rights movement’s heroic period, punctuated by the March on Washington, forged a new consensus around American values, arguing that the country’s greatness lay in its ability to reinvent itself beyond the imagination of its original architects.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech boldly placed the quest for racial justice as the centerpiece of new democratic norms, citizenship rights and a global display of American commitment to equal justice. The movement proclaimed the guaranteeing of black citizenship as a moral and political issue that reflected the grandeur of the American Dream for the entire world to see.
The dazzling display of democratic resolve in the nation’s capital 55 years ago reminds us of the enduring power that results when Americans of goodwill come together to confront some of the most pressing issues of our time. Neither King’s speech at the March on Washington nor the president’s tweets about black athletes’ right to protest injustice by kneeling during the national anthem will be the final word on the subject of racial progress.
Yet the dissonance between the moral high ground King called the nation to aspire to and the baser instincts the president consistently appeals to illuminate the present gulf between democratic ideals and reality that must be confronted if we are to ever achieve multiracial equality.