We are living through challenging times with a mix of pride at what we have accomplished and despair at the facts that tell us that despite the formal smashing of “the manacles of segregation,” as King called them, too many black men, women and children 50 years on from the march still dwell “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” while others are “still languishing in the corners of American society” feeling like exiles in their “own land.”
– As of last month, the unemployment rate among African Americans was more than 13 percent and almost double the national average.
– The same is true of the poverty rate: More than 27 percent of black Americans dwell in poverty, compared with the nation’s average, 15.
– The poverty rate among African-American children is especially alarming, as it was in 1968, the year of the King assassination – both at more than 30 percent.
– The black male prison population remains the highest of any demographic — 38 percent of all inmates, state and federal — despite the fact that blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
These are hard numbers, numbers that the March on Washington explicitly sought to change, along with eradicating de jure segregation, and while we have come so far, and crossed many more rivers since then, we have so much more work to do to realize the “dream” that King so beautifully and so memorably articulated at the culmination of his speech.
The memory of the march today, like any family event, is filled with more emotions than fact: anticipation, nostalgia, reverence, worship, disappointment, exaggeration, wistfulness, poignancy and pride. It was all these things then, too, because as King evidenced in his speech, the protesters who gathered in August 1963 were very conscious of place, of where they had traveled and where they hoped to go, and of the fact that, while there had been other nonviolent mass gatherings — from Detroit, in June of that summer, where King had delivered an earlier version of his Dream speech, to Los Angeles — this was Washington, D.C., the capital of the nation, the perfect setting for measuring progress since emancipation.
In the distance stood monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, reminders of the “bad check” that had been written out to our enslaved ancestors at the founding and, for their descendants, was still marked “insufficient funds.” Behind King, seated and imposing, was the Great Emancipator himself, Lincoln, whose memorial had become that “hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now” and a reminder that in the 100 years since emancipation, little measurable progress had been made, in practical terms, for those attempting to replace the badges of slavery with the rights of citizenship; with equal access to opportunity and place; with “brotherhood,” the elimination of “police brutality” and a decent-paying, respectable job.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the emotional summit of the civil-rights movement. Fifty years on, let it inspire you, just as it did all of us who heard it live, whether on the Mall or in our living rooms. Let it challenge you to continue pursuing the arc of change that King and his devoted followers risked and sacrificed their lives to effect, so that this generation of African Americans and the chronically poor would be the first in our country’s long history of race relations to have equal access to the promise of America. Let it be your opportunity to “let freedom ring.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.