For a while, it looked like the 50th anniversary observance of the March on Washington would expose a sharp split in the Civil Rights Movement. Al Sharpton jumped ahead of his colleagues by cornering Martin Luther King III and the two of them announced a March on Washington for Saturday, August 24. Other civil rights leaders were planning events around that time and complained privately that Sharpton and Martin III had locked up key funding from major labor groups, a primary source of funding for the movement.
A series of high-profile events – the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutting the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, remanding a University of Texas affirmative action case back to the appellate level for stricter scrutiny and George Zimmerman being found not guilty of second-degree murder in connection with the shooting death of 17-year-old unarmed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. – left African-Americans and their supporters clamoring for an outlet to express their disgust.
Suddenly, the march organized by Sharpton became the focal point. With Sharpton still working on other leaders in the background, urging them to come aboard, the pieces began to quickly fall in place. At this point, it looks like all of the major civil rights leaders – including Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National League; Charles Steele, CEO of Dr. King’s old organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition; Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, among others – will join Sharpton and King as headliners of the Aug. 24 march.
Of course, there are the usual detractors who argue, as conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams does, that we’ve been marching so long that we should have reached wherever we were marching to by now.
The reality is that we haven’t reached our destination. Black unemployment has been twice that of Whites for the past five decades. The progress made by expanding the Black middle class has been eroded by the Great Recession and Blacks are profiled while walking the streets of New York City or Sanford, Fla.
At a panel at the recent National Urban League convention assessing the progress made since the original March on Washington, Al Sharpton said, “You say why march about voting? Well, that’s how we got it the first time. We did not get voting rights at a cocktail sip, trying to have racial harmony sessions. We got it by organizing and galvanizing and the only way we are going to make changes is by organizing and galvanizing.”
Let’s not forget that Trayvon Martin’s name became a household word only after marches led by Sharpton, college students and activists around the nation, insisting that George Zimmerman be brought to trial for murder.
It’s the combination of marching and a specific agenda that leads to change. And while we’re on the subject of marches, not everyone marched in the demonstrations of the 1960s. There was not unity among civil rights leaders – Roy Wilkins, for example, was intensely jealous of Dr. King – and many people did not jump on the King bandwagon until after he was assassinated in Memphis and lived thereafter through his “I Have a Dream” speech and on U.S. postage stamps.
Unfortunately, there will be two observations of the 1963 March. One on Aug. 24 co-chaired by Sharpton and Martin, III and another one, more of a celebration of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, on Aug. 28, the actual date of the original March. President Obama, who has had difficulty in the past uttering Dr. King’s name in public, will speak at the second event organized by Bernice King, the sole surviving daughter of the slain civil rights leader.
To those who question the need for another march, they should examine a graphic created by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) that compares goals of the 1963 March with today’s reality:
- Goal: We Demand an end to ghettos. Reality: We still live in ghettos. Forty-five percent of poor Black children but only 12 percent of poor White children live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
- Goal: We Demand an End to School Segregation. Reality: Seventy-four percent of Black children attend schools that are 50-100 percent non-White, resulting in fewer resources than majority White schools.
- Goal: We March for Jobs for All. Reality: In 2012, the Black unemployment rate –14 percent – was 2.1 times the White unemployment rate (6.6 percent).
- Goal: We March for a Living Wage. Reality: The minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, well below the $11.06 an hour a full-time worker needed in 2011 to keep a family of four out of poverty (36 percent of Black workers make poverty-level wages).
That’s why we’re still marching.