Fifty years ago last week, a quarter of a million people descended on Washington D.C. to demand freedom and jobs. The occasion is best remembered for the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, a stirring declaration on behalf of —and a demand for —equality among the races. One short yet simple passage —”I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin” —has captivated generations and provided a benchmark for all societies ever since.
The march pushed politicians to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation introduced in the summer of 1963, but not passed until a year later and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The law outlawed discrimination against racial, ethnic and religious minorities as well as women, and banned voting-registration practices that discriminated against, and effectively disenfranchised, those minorities.
There is no mistaking the progress that has been made in the United States in the half century since Dr. King spoke those words. The Voting Rights Act put an end to the most egregious abuses of the political process to suppress minority participation in American elections. Segregation is no longer legal. The United States now has a black president. There have been significant economic advances as well. In the 1960s, more than half the black population lived in poverty; now a majority is no longer poor. A half century ago, less than 5 percent of blacks graduated from university; in 2010, 38 percent were enrolled in universities or colleges.
There remains a long way to go, however. Black median individual income is two-thirds that of whites. The median net worth of black households is less than one-tenth of their white counterparts. In the first decade of this century, black median household income fell from 64 percent to 58 percent of the white figure. Black unemployment is twice the white figure. Nearly three times as many black children are born out of wedlock than white children. There is considerable evidence that many schools are resegregating. The percentage of black men in U.S. prisons is seven times that of white men. Their life expectancy is shorter and the health of the black community is considerably worse than that of whites.
The message of the 1963 march was that the U.S. could not reach its potential as long as any of its citizens were treated as second-class citizens. Sadly, the U.S. is still not color blind, but then no country is. Nor for that matter is there equality of opportunity for all when it comes to gender. (Ironically, women have played critical roles in the U.S. civil rights movement, but they were an after thought when planning the 1963 march.)
In remarks to mark the 50th anniversary last week, U.S. President Barack Obama noted that his country’s civil rights struggle resonated around the world. It both inspired and drew inspiration from the efforts of other oppressed peoples, in particular those in the Soviet bloc who were denied basic freedoms in the name of an official ideology. It also inspired millions of South Africans who were held equally captive by the system of apartheid.
Mr. Obama’s election was supposed to herald the arrival of post-racial politics in the U.S. The country’s first black president represented the culmination of a half century of progress. Yet since Mr. Obama’s election, divisions in his country have only seemed to deepen. Today, race still defines too many opportunities, but ethnicity, class and culture can be just as important. For many Americans, Mr. Obama is not the symbol of a post-racial society —a symbol of success —but is instead the living embodiment of the anxieties that they feel in the 21st century. For them, Mr. Obama is an opportunity to exploit for partisan political advantage.
It is sad that no Republican leaders joined the commemorative program last week in Washington. The two former Presidents Bush declined for health reasons, although President George W. Bush sent a message praising Dr. King’s “message of hope, justice, and brotherhood that took hold in the hearts of men and women around the world.” The absence of other Republicans is inexplicable. The GOP’s reluctance to fix the provisions of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this summer —despite being reaffirmed only a few years ago by huge majorities in both houses of Congress —suggests that scheduling conflicts are not, as some would suggest, the real reason for their failure to make an appearance.
In his remarks last week, Mr. Obama noted that “change does not come from Washington, but to Washington,” adding that “In the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.” A half century ago, a half million people took up that challenge, demanding not only their own inalienable rights as U.S. citizens, but rights for friends, neighbors and even strangers. It was, after all, a march for freedom and jobs for all Americans. That sense of unity and purpose is needed now more than ever as Americans continue their fight for freedom and equality.