Today kicks off a week-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, best remembered by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,’s “I Have A Dream” speech. For so many reasons, it is hard to believe fifty years have passed — some positive, some negative.
On Wednesday, the anniversary march will include presidents Carter, Clinton, and Barack Obama. But, this anniversary celebration comes a couple of months after key policies aimed at redressing racial discrimination — Affirmative Action, the Voting Rights Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act — have been significantly limited and compromised. And, after George Zimmerman walks free after killing an innocent, unarmed young Black man — Trayvon Martin — among other persistent uses and misuses of the law to keep Blacks “in their place.”
A Broader Vision
In some ways, Dr. King’s dream has become reality; in other ways, the nightmares of the pre-Civil Rights era have returned. One unique aspect of this anniversary march, as there were a few before (e.g., 20th, 30th, 37th, 40th), is a broader focus on discrimination, equal rights, and equal protections. Specifically, the National Action Network (NAN) — a (younger [23 years]) civil rights organization led by Rev. Al Sharpton — has including the following items to their list of talking points for the anniversary celebration:
- Jobs & the Economy (including unemployment among youth)
- Voting Rights
- Workers’ Rights
- Criminal Justice Issues, Stand Your Ground Laws & Gun Violence
- Women’s Rights (including right to make health-related decisions, and equal pay)
- Immigration Reform
- LGBT Equality (including marriage equality, and employment discrimination)
- Environmental Justice (especially for low-income communities of color)
- Youth (including unemployment, college debt)
It will be difficult to give due credit to each of these issues, and some are certainly left out all together. But, I see this as an important direction as we move into the future. Many of these issues are intertwined such that you cannot effectively address one without addressing another.
For example, the Supreme Court struck a blow to discrimination and harassment law this summer, which will make it more difficult to “prove” one has been targeted by someone other than a supervisor; this has consequences for people of color, women, LGBT people, working-class people, and other marginalized groups. The Court’s decision to gut the part of the Voting Rights Act that calls for oversight in states with histories of blatant racist discrimination in elections also opens the door for heightened discrimination against trans* people. Stand Your Ground laws, which made the murder of Trayvon Martin legal, mirror the “gay panic” defense that has been used to justify violence against LGBT people.
It is also important to remember that some individuals are directly affected by these issues in their everyday lives. For example, a singular focus on race, ethnicity, racism, xenophobia, and immigration overlooks the additional realities of sexist discrimination, sexual violence, and sexual harassment in the lives of women of color. It leads us to continue to ignore the unjust imprisonment of CeCe McDonald as an issue that impacts the lives of all people of color because her gender identity is not seen as a “Black issue.”
It is my hope that the awareness of these connections, and the genuine efforts to build coalitions across groups and causes, will lead us to a broader fight for justice and human rights.
A Family Legacy
My Grandmother — Barbara Cox — participated in the 1963 March on Washington. (I have heard conflicting stories from family, but she may been fired from her job for missing work to do so.) Sadly, she passed in 1990, when I was just five years old. But, my mother and I participated in the 30th anniversary of the march, in her honor, in 1993:
Today, at the 50th anniversary march, my mother is now participating alongside her union, fighting for better working conditions and to eliminate workplace discrimination and harassment for federal workers. Though my father will also be at some of the week’s events on the security side of things (in his capacity as law enforcement), he, too, has become increasingly involved with anti-racist and other social justice work over time. As he noted in a talk on contemporary race relations at his local Unitarian Universalist church, there are relatives on both his and my mother’s sides of the family that participated in various anti-racist and civil rights efforts, as well.
I suppose you could say it’s “in the blood” — that inevitable commitment to social justice and activism. Reflecting on the legacy of activism and advocacy in my family certainly puts me at ease about my own work; whatever the challenges I may face in my career, fighting for justice feels a bit like my destiny. And, part of that charge is to keep fighting for the issues my Grandmother and other older relatives — and now my parents — fought for, but also to broaden that work to reflect social justice for the 21st century.
Though in some respects “destined” or “inevitable,” the work that my mother, father, and I are pursuing reflect change. As pessimistic as we could be, and with good reason, about where we are at this 50th anniversary, there is so much to celebrate. My parents’ marriage, as an interracial couple, faces no legal barriers and substantially less social opposition. Today, I can look to the White House to see that the nation’s top leader is multiracial like me. I can openly fight against homophobic and transphobic prejudice and discrimination; in doing so, I have influenced my parents to see the importance of fighting for LGBT rights, and the connections to other forms of inequality. At the time of the 30th anniversary, none of us could have predicted who we are and what we are doing today, 20 years later.
Unfortunately, I am not feeling well and energized enough to attend this weekend’s events, and Monday’s start of classes prevents attending the week’s events (and I’m certain the latter matter is the cause of the former)! But, I am there in spirit. I remain committed to fighting for, but also broadening, Dr. King’s dream for life.