By MARSHA MERCER
At the rally on Aug. 28 commemorating the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President Barack Obama will do something President John F. Kennedy declined to do 50 years ago. He will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
For the first black president to speak from the spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech illustrates how much society has changed for the better in half a century. But it’s not the end of the journey. Obama’s remarks likely will point to how far we still need to go, especially to achieve economic equality.
The march galvanized the nation behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, but despite the spectacular success of some individuals, overall economic progress for blacks has been slower.
The poverty rate for blacks is three times that of whites, the black unemployment rate is nearly twice that of whites, and, nearly 60 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, most schools remain racially segregated, reports the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on the economic condition of low- and middle-income Americans.
The anniversary of the march gives us a window on a sad and turbulent time that many Americans don’t recall. Obama was only 2 in 1963. Time has dimmed the memories of many who are old enough to remember the benighted South of segregated movie theaters and waiting rooms and “whites-only” lunch counters and motels.
Huge demonstrations on the National Mall are routine these days, but Washington had never seen a mass gathering of black protesters. Kennedy tried to persuade organizers to cancel it because he was afraid it would turn violent and that would provoke a backlash in Congress, dooming his civil rights bill.
Television news that spring and summer had shown Americans a horrifying picture of their country. Fire hoses, night sticks and attack dogs were turned against nonviolent citizens protesting discrimination. On June 11, National Guard troops were required to escort two black students to the University of Alabama where a defiant Gov. George Wallace reluctantly stepped aside. That same afternoon, King sent a telegram to Kennedy urging him to do something about police brutality against protesters in Danville, Va.
"The Negro’s endurance may be at a breaking point,” King wrote.
That night, Kennedy made a televised address from the Oval Office. He called civil rights a moral issue.
"The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated,” the president said.
A few hours later, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson, Miss.
Leading up to the march, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sought to minimize potential problems by negotiating how it would be conducted. To reduce crowds, the march would be on a Wednesday. Bars and liquor stores were closed, the Washington Senators baseball game canceled and federal workers could stay home. The rally would end by 4 p.m. so protesters could leave town by dusk.
On the Sunday before the 1963 march, NBC’s “Meet the Press” featured Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, and King, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Many questions centered on whether the march would be peaceful. Yes, said Wilkins and King, yes.
During the Cold War, the threat of Communism loomed large, and the journalists asked about Bayard Rustin, the march’s chief organizer, who had been a member of the Young Communist League. He has changed, the leaders insisted.
The radical Rustin, who was also a gay activist, is finally being recognized for his role in orchestrating the peaceful march. Obama will give Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously later this year. It’s the country’s highest honor given to civilians.
Kennedy reportedly declined to speak at the march because he thought it impossible to write a speech that would please both the marchers and the nationwide TV audience. The president met with march leaders at the White House immediately afterward. He praised their deep fervor and quiet dignity, and he promised to work toward civil rights, full employment and to eliminate discrimination in employment, education and housing.
As Kennedy and then President Lyndon B. Johnson took the lead on civil rights, it’s now Obama’s turn to take the lead on moving the country closer to economic equality.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.