The March: Scholars Have Their Say

The March on Washington (Wikimedia Commons)
The March on Washington (Wikimedia Commons)

(The Root) — In the opening line of his "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. predicted that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would "go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."

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Fifty years on, we now know he was prophetic.

As part of our continuing coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we asked several notable scholars for their take on the day. What, in their opinion, did the 1963 march accomplish? What has been its legacy? And because so many would like to know, we asked: What tangible result would you like to see from this year's march? 

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Below find their fascinating answers, including an assessment of the day's worldwide impact and a plan from a leading thinker that could help turn Saturday's march into real results.

William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University 

The famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, was, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. appropriately pointed out, "the emotional summit of the civil rights movement." The leaders of the march perceived its goals in different ways, ranging from those who saw it as a dramatic way to support civil rights to those who saw it as a way to focus national attention on economic issues.

In subsequent years some black leaders began to place greater emphasis on economic issues. Thus, in the summer of 1965, when there was widespread displeasure among African Americans regarding their efforts to achieve equality of employment, Martin Luther King Jr. bluntly stated: "What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can't buy a hamburger?" Black economist Vivian Henderson echoed a similar theme in 1975 by proclaiming that historic racism and discrimination put blacks in a precarious economic situation and then stepped aside to watch changes in the economy, including increasing technology, worsen their economic misery.

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The computer revolution rewards skilled workers and displaces low-skilled workers, and the globalization of the economy puts low-skilled workers in this country in greater competition with low-skilled workers in developing countries. So if you don't have skills or a decent education in this global economy, your chances for mobility are minimal. This is a problem for all low-skilled workers, but it is even more of a problem for low-skilled blacks because of employer racial preferences, not to mention segregation, which decreases access to areas of employment growth. The problem is especially acute for low-skilled black males, and many turn to crime and end up in prison, which further marginalizes them and decreases their employment opportunities.

So in the spirit of the emphasis on jobs and economic opportunity in the 1963 March on Washington, I would strongly recommend legislation to target areas of high unemployment with job-creation strategies, including the creation of public-sector jobs. Such a program would address unemployment not only in, say, black inner-city neighborhoods but also in white, Latino and Asian areas marked by high jobless rates.

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I suggest such legislation with few illusions that it can be achieved without stern political opposition, given that Republicans now control the House of Representatives, but with the hope that it will indeed receive serious consideration by members of Congress and the American public in the future, perhaps during President Obama's second term of office.

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia University 

I was there at the March on Washington in 1963 (as well as at the lesser-known march for school integration in 1958). With Martin Luther King's birthday now a national holiday and the 1963 march now lauded across the political spectrum, it is hard to remember how controversial the march was when it took place. The Kennedy administration was not enthusiastic; nor was the mainstream press. The thought of hundreds of thousands of blacks, along with white allies, descending on the nation's capital scared the wits out of them.

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What the march accomplished was to reveal to a nationwide audience the mass support behind the civil rights revolution. It gave the brilliant oratory of King and others a national audience they did not yet fully enjoy. And while most of the participants were black, it offered a concrete realization of the ideal of interracialism.

And while I don't expect any tangible results from the upcoming march, anything that puts the issues of racial equality and economic justice on the national agenda is worthy of support.

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Peniel E. Joseph, Professor of History, Tufts University

The March on Washington helped to fundamentally transform American democracy. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech helped to jump-start a national conversation about race and democracy that would continue throughout the decade. Ultimately, the march turned the struggle for racial equality and economic justice into a national priority and helped to spur not only civil rights legislation but also a grander vision of national renewal that became an integral part of what President Lyndon Johnson called the Great Society.

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Stephen Tuck, University Lecturer in American History, University of Oxford

While hundreds of thousands marched with King in Washington, many hundreds also marched in solidarity in Accra, Ghana; Tel Aviv, Israel; and London, and thousands more watched King's speech live via the newly launched Telstar Satellite. In London, demonstrators marched on the American Embassy carrying a banner that read, "Your fight is our fight." In doing so, they were not just showing support for their American counterparts — they also sought to harness the power and the popularity of the American civil rights movement to strengthen their campaign against discrimination in Britain. 

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The global reach of the American race story remains today, perhaps even more so in our increasingly interconnected world. And with global reach comes responsibility. Seeking to realize the dream in America matters for us all.

Donald Yacovone, Director of Research and Program Development, Harvard University; Associate, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University 

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The 1963 March on Washington, which has become an iconic event in the history of the civil rights movement, focused national attention on the injustices of segregation and legitimized the civil rights movement in the eyes of many Americans who previously had been swayed by the segregationists' appeal to anti-communist ideology. In retrospect, [the famous march] gave the civil rights movement a new legitimacy and elevated Martin Luther King Jr. to heroic status. But it also served to simplify the civil rights message, dulling its sharp challenges to American society. We are dealing with the results of that process to this very day, which the murder of Trayvon Martin so painfully displayed.

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