This weekend, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, best known for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream.”
Fifty years later, the dream challenges us yet. It is alive because it is not static. The dream of equal rights and equal opportunity, of being judged for character, not color, has transformed this nation. Much progress has been forged; much remains to be done.
One way to think about the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s dream is as a symphony of freedom. The first movement was the movement to end slavery, which required the bloodiest war in American history. Then came the drive to end segregation, the disfiguring legal apartheid of the South. In that victory, the movement freed not only African-Americans but also the South to grow, and opened access to libraries and hotels, trains and restaurants, pools and parks. Rosa Parks could sit wherever she wanted to on that bus.
The third movement was the movement for empowerment, for the right to vote. That movement culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, challenging the various taxes and tests and intimidation used to deprive African-Americans of the power of the ballot box. This year, the five conservatives on the Supreme Court weakened the act. Conservative governors and legislators are pushing to constrict rather than expand the vote. We still have no constitutional right to vote. Surely, that is the next step toward the dream.
The fourth movement of the freedom symphony features the trumpet call for equal opportunity, and the clash over extreme and growing inequality. Here, Lyndon Johnson’s promise to fulfill the movement’s pledge that “we shall overcome” has been frustrated. African-Americans continue to suffer twice the unemployment as Whites. Poor people of color, often isolated in ghettos and barrios, have less access to healthful food, good schools, public parks and safe streets. Inequality is the new de facto segregation, with the affluent withdrawing to gated communities and private schools, and the poor huddled in impoverished neighborhoods.
Dr. King knew this final movement was the most difficult. He saw Johnson’s war on poverty being lost in the costly folly of Vietnam. He worried that we might be “integrating into a burning house.” He was murdered while standing with sanitation workers organizing for dignity and a decent wage. When he died, he was organizing a new march on Washington — a Poor People’s Campaign that would bring the impoverished of all races and regions to a Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., to demand a renewal of the war on poverty.
The fourth movement — the movement for real equality of opportunity — remains unfinished. Its agenda speaks to poor and working people of all races: full employment, a living wage, child nutrition, a good public education from pre-K to affordable college, high-quality health care, affordable housing in vibrant communities, workers empowered to share in the profits and productivity they help to produce.
We have gained freedom without equality. Globalized capital and communications have been used to push workers down rather than lift them up. We continue to squander scarce resources policing the globe. Inequality has grown worse, and the middle class is sinking.
The symphony of freedom is unfinished, but its powerful themes still resound and stir its listeners. Dr. King called on each of us to march for justice. He understood the power of people of conscience when they decide to act. As we remember his dream, we are called to action, for there is more work to be done.