He began his speech by saying, “But 100 years [after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation], we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
With all of our proud accomplishments and movement toward progress, it’s tempting to celebrate this day with self-congratulation. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women have made impressive strides in all walks of life and in all markers of achievement – including, arguably, the highest, that of president of the United States. Much of what Dr. King envisioned and articulated in his speech as well as lived in his activism and work has been an ongoing struggle that has yet to be fulfilled. And while Dr. King’s four children all enjoyed freedoms he and his colleagues didn’t, there are still gaping inequities that need attention.
While 50 years ago, laws enshrined segregation, we have developed new systems of segregation that not only work on racial lines but socio-economic ones, that conscribe young black people – particularly young black men – to poverty, low-wage work, and often prison. The cradle-to-prison pipeline funnels and wastes such potential in our country by siphoning young black children to lives that are marred by little-to-no opportunity.
These enduring concerns really bring to light King’s warnings in his speech that the “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” He went on to say, “1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will not be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual… The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Dr. King and his colleagues and supporters knew that social change wasn’t an easy, quick solution to a problem, but a long, sometimes drawn out process that will take decades. While it’s true that the Civil Rights Movement has made progress and has moved forward, crashing through barriers, the opposition has moved forward and developed and evolved as well – the backlash is evergreen, running parallel to any hint of social progress – from arch-conservative politicians who preach austerity at the expense of the poor to fringe groups who build platforms on divide, just as we celebrate a diverse America, we must also contend with a divided one, as well.
Some of King’s points in his speech still stand up today – he spoke out against police brutality and we still live in an America where young black men are routinely harassed by the police. He spoke out against segregation – and while legal segregation has been abolished, the black and white divide still remains – particularly in large urban areas like Chicago, where many of its residents’ “basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” And the one single right that is often regarded as sacred – the right to vote – is also in peril due to a recent Supreme Court decision that is prompting many state legislators to push for strict, onerous voter ID laws that will disenfranchise many, including some who were standing in the crowd of 300,000 listening to Dr. King’s speech 50 years ago.
So the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington should not only act as a milestone for celebration, but also a call to action – a reminder that we owe so much to so many. Progress is slow, but it needn’t be as slow as it is. We have fallen into a status quo that Dr. King warned us against – we have come to accept the current climate of racial inequality, because we have allowed ourselves to be distracted by all the good progress that’s been achieved. It’s enough for most of us that we have a black president. It’s enough for most of that we have black CEOs. It’s enough for most of us that we’ve had two black secretaries of state, and that our attorney general is black. We look to these people – all highly accomplished people – and are rightfully proud, but our pride is unjustified in its complacency because we use their success and their achievements as an excuse to become idle. White privilege in all its subtle and overt manifestations must be dismantled if we ever want to achieve the kind of more perfect union King and his supporters were working for.