It was 50 years ago when the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and events around the country will commemorate the march this August. Even President Obama is in on the action. He's slated to deliver remarks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an Aug. 28 "Let Freedom Ring" ceremony.
So, half a century later, has the dream been realized? Not quite, according to the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, which is behind the commemorative National Action to Realize the Dream March slated for Aug. 24 at the same historic location. In anticipation of the march, we take a walk down civil rights memory lane, including what's changed since 1963 and what has unfortunately stayed the same.
The common shorthand for the event, "March on Washington," dropped the specific clause about its goals. The 1963 event's official title was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
National Action Network's event has been dubbed the National Action to Realize the Dream March. Why the remixed title? "It is important that you use the name when speaking about the march so that people understand that this march is not just a commemoration, but a continuation of the efforts 50 years ago," NAN materials emphasize.
A. Philip Randolph — international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council and vice president of the AFL-CIO — took the lead for organizing the march. He wrote his May 24, 1962, letter requesting a march permit on behalf of the Negro American Labor Council, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. By the end of the summer, the NAACP, the National Urban League and other civil rights organizations had signed on to participate or sponsor.
This year's march is the brainchild of the Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of National Action Network, and Martin Luther King III, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King's oldest son (and president of Realizing the Dream). The groups joining them have plenty of overlap with the organizations behind the 1963 events: The King Center, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the NAACP, the SCLC, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the NUL and the National Council of Negro Women are all on board.
More than 200,000 people converged on the National Mall, filling more than 2,000 buses, 21 chartered trains, 10 chartered airliners and countless personal cars. The influx of marchers meant that all regularly scheduled buses, flights and trains were at capacity.
"We are expecting at least 100,000 people will rally with us in D.C.," NAN predicts. That's less than half the original count, but there's an additional form of attendance that those who marched 50 years ago couldn't have even imagined as a possibility: The organization expects hundreds of thousands more to "rally through social media to take a stand against the many issues that are plaguing our broad community."
The march's stated goals included a comprehensive civil rights bill, legislation to protect the right to vote, desegregation of all public schools, a $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide, a massive federal works program to train and place unemployed workers and a Federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination in all employment. When all was said and done, it was credited with provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 that reflect marchers' demands.
The organizers of this year's march have not yet released specific policy goals, but according to NAN, the march will aim to call attention to ongoing inequality and injustice related to jobs and the economy; voting rights, workers' rights and women's rights; "Stand your ground" laws and gun violence; immigration; environmental justice; young people and college loans; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. Stay tuned for results.
Bayard Rustin handled most of the logistics and mobilization for the 1963 march. He built and led the team of 200 activists and organizers who publicized it and also recruited the participants, coordinated travel, provided the marshals and handled all of the final details. And all this with no Internet.
NAN has a website for registration, a hotline and information for contacting local organizers. You can even offer up seats on a bus. Press releases have been widely distributed, and Al Sharpton also has the platform of his MSNBC program to drum up enthusiasm for the event. So this time, there's really no excuse for saying you didn't hear about it.
Everyone knows the march was when Martin Luther King Jr. first delivered his "I have a Dream" speech from the Lincoln Memorial. That was the undisputed high point of the day, but that was far from the whole program. Other remarks came from Little Rock civil rights veteran Daisy Lee Bates, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, American Jewish Congress President Rabbi Joachim Prinz, A. Philip Randolph, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, NAACP President Roy Wilkins, NUL President Whitney Young and SNCC leader John Lewis.
In addition to Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, the current list of speakers includes the families of Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, along with Rep. John Lewis of Georgia (the only one of the six leaders of the 1963 March on Washington that is still alive); House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi; Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer; Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza; Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union; Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association; and Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.