The long march to freedom
Editors Baltimore Times | 8/30/2013, midnight
The Washington Post had a telling confession to make last week. Officials at the paper admitted that they “blew it” in their coverage of the March on Washington 50 years ago. The Post, which at the time was more of a hometown paper than the major national daily it has become, was more concerned about covering the possible violent confrontations at the march than the speeches or the views of the marchers. Of the thousands of words written about the march that appeared in the Post the next day, only a few lines were devoted to Martin Luther King’s immortal “Dream” speech.
The Post’s mea culpa is a relevant reflection of the difference in perspective on the part of whites and blacks during the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Washington’s white establishment expected and feared violence; the more than 250,000 marchers instead engaged in an orderly, peaceful and nonviolent demonstration.
That really may have been the story the Post missed, the fact that so many black citizens— and some whites— came from across the nation to gather peacefully around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial to show the world that whatever trials they faced, they were determined to overcome them. It was a communal statement of both hope and resolve.
Clearly, the march was not a declaration that the need to continue the struggle ended that day. The challenge ahead was more than daunting. Congressman John Lewis, appearing Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” spoke of the march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965, nearly two years after the march on Washington. The intent of the march, Lewis said, was to dramatize to
Alabama and the nation that people wanted to register to vote.
“All across the South, it was almost impossible for people to register to vote, simply because of the color of their skin. There was one county between Selma and Montgomery— the county was more than 80 percent African American. There was not a single registered black voter in the county.”
The March on Washington had been peaceful; this one wasn’t. Alabama State Troopers, some on horseback, waded into the crowd firing teargas and beating marchers with nightsticks. Lewis was struck in the head and suffered a concussion.
Again, perspective comes into play. Any black who lived through that era, who knew from experience the difficulty of registering to vote or participating as an equal in ordinary American life taken for granted by those born white, naturally would be skeptical of current-day claims that the nation has achieved racial equality. Despite monumental gains, despite the fact that we have elected a black president, despite the construction of a legal framework for equal rights, we still have work to do.
Ironically, 50 years after the march on Washington, we once again are confronted with bald-faced attempts at minority voter suppression in the form of new voter ID laws. Women have yet to achieve equality with men in the workplace. And the new civil rights challenge of this generation is to establish equality under the law for gays and lesbians.
Newspapers across the country were not alone in missing the significance of
Dr. King’s speech. Many marchers also have confessed that they didn’t hear the whole speech or fully appreciate it at the time. Only in later years, as the speech has been replayed over and over, read and recited by school children, entered the canon of the nation’s greatest oratory, have Americans both black and white come to
revere it for what it is— a necessary dream yet to be fulfilled.
We celebrate the moment that speech was delivered before hundreds of thousands of Americans who had descended on Washington to assert their rights. However, we also must continue to use that moment as inspiration to continue the effort to make King’s vision a reality. None of us are truly free until we are all free.