When more than 250,000 people convened on the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963 for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 6 million people were unemployed, 22 million Americans lived in poverty, voting rights for Blacks were barely existent in many areas of the country and Blacks often faced harassment and mistreatment.
Fifty years later, 12 million people are unemployed, 60 million Americans live in poverty, voting rights gained, in part, as a result of the historic march are now under attack and the Trayvon Martin case has once again highlighted the stereotyping, profiling and harassment of African Americans who are often labeled suspicious just because of the color of their skin.
As thousands convene August 24, for the 50th anniversary commemoration, called the "National Action to Realize the Dream," the nation’s Black leadership is expected to outline an agenda for a 21st century Civil Rights Movement.
Despite some gains, overwhelming statistics conclude that the famous “content of their character” instead of the “color of their skin” hope expressed in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963 remains elusive.
So while the mission of the commemoration is to move ahead, there is also a feeling that on the issue of civil rights, the nation has “unfinished business.”
“The exact quote from A. Philip Randolph was that America could not work if 6 million Americans are unemployed. Okay, well, we’ve got 12 million Americans unemployed – and that’s the official number,” said economist Bill Spriggs, of the AFL-CIO. “If 6 million people are unemployed and 250,000 people show up when the public policy statement and the position of [President John F. Kennedy] was ‘I am going to stimulate the economy to do whatever it takes to get the unemployment rate down to 4 percent’ and you currently have a president who hasn’t said anything close to that, then how many people are supposed to be in the street?”
That remains to be seen on Aug. 24. The vast majority of those 12 million unemployed people are African Americans. And though the unemployment rate appears to be dropping, it still remains consistently twice that of Blacks.
Labor leader A. Philip Randolph, alongside chief organizer Bayard Rustin, was a key player in the 1963 March on Washington. His exact words were: “We have no future in a society in which 6 million Black and White people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them.”
That sentiment mirrors the message coming from modern day civil rights leaders, who have spent months tuning up their speeches for Aug. 24.
“Like what Dr. King, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph and Dr. [Dorothy] Height did in 1963 led to the ‘64 Civil Rights Act and the ‘65 Voting Rights Act, what we do in this August we intend to help shape and change legislation and the body politic and the spirit of this country going forward,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a key organizer of the Aug. 24 march, at a June news conference announcing the event.
“We intend to address the powers in the kingdom and make change happen.”
Martin Luther King III has described Saturday’s march as “almost like a campaign” in that it will place front and center the need for change. He called today’s economic situation “unacceptable in a nation with so much wealth and so many resources and so much ingenuity.”
“It is our responsibility to challenge this nation,” King said. “And again, that’s why we will come together in large numbers on August 24. But we will be going around to communities all over this nation over the next 24 months, mobilizing at every level bringing business leaders, community leaders, religious leaders and elected officials together to determine how we’re going to define a strategic plan that brings about that freedom, justice and equality for our communities and ultimately for our nation.”
Sharpton and King will be joined by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who is believed to be the sole speaker at the 1963 march who remains alive; U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi; U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer; the family of Emmett Till, whose death at 14 is often cited as the catalyst for the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement; and the parents of Trayvon Martin. There will also be advocates for the church, civil rights, labor, women’s rights, immigration reform and LGBT rights, organizers said.
The August 24 event is scheduled to begin with a rally at the Lincoln Memorial at 8 a.m., following by a march to the King Memorial. The march is not to be confused with a second commemorative event on August 28. The Rev. Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has announced a “Let Freedom Ring Global Commemoration Celebration Call to Action” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at 1 p.m. That event will include tributes, entertainment and a “Let Freedom Ring” bell ringing at 3 p.m., she said.
The White House has announced that President Barack Obama will be speaking at the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony.
The August 28 events have been designed to underscore the need for a continued movement.
In a press conference announcing the event, Rev. Bernice King said states are being asked to participate in the bell-ringing to recommit to the quest for freedom.
“Struggle is a never-ending process,” she said, quoting her mother, Coretta Scott King. “We are still fighting for freedom. This is a continuation of the freedom struggle.”
It is unclear whether President Obama will respond to the specific issues that will be discussed at the August 24 march when he speaks on August 28.