WASHINGTON -- Edith Lee-Payne remembers standing by a fence just a few feet away from the Lincoln Memorial on a sweltering August day a half-century ago, captivated by the words and powerful message delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
She was only 12 at the time, but Lee-Payne fully understood why her family made the pilgrimage by bus from Detroit to join an estimated 250,000 people who gathered for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“I knew what was going on in the South from television,” said Lee-Payne, who’s now a 61-year-old community activist in Detroit. “Everyone was hinging on Dr. King’s every word, including me. When you heard him, you felt it was going to be all right. It was going to be all right.”
Lee-Payne is scheduled to return to the Lincoln Memorial this week to join tens of thousands of others observing the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Nearly a week’s worth of events – from an anniversary march Saturday to President Barack Obama delivering an address at the Lincoln Memorial next Wednesday – will mark an occasion that organizers hope will be more than a celebration of a crucial chapter in American history.
They hope it serves as a call to action to counter what many in the civil rights and African-American communities see as threats to hard-fought victories of the 1960s that expanded voting rights, enhanced employment and educational opportunities, and balanced the scales of justice for a previously disenfranchised people.
Last month’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; the Supreme Court decision in June striking down a key provision of the 1964 Voting Rights Act and hinting of a more skeptical view toward affirmative action programs; and an African-American unemployment rate that’s nearly twice the national average have raised questions and concerns about the state of King’s dream of racial equality and progress.
“These are unsettling times, difficult times,” said NAACP Missouri State Conference President Mary Ratliff, who’s chartered a bus to carry Missouri residents to Washington for the anniversary events. “We’re seeing the gains that we’ve made slip back, and we have to stand up.”
A Gallup poll taken in July before the Zimmerman verdict found that 52 percent of African-Americans are dissatisfied with the way they’re treated in U.S. society while 47 percent say they’re satisfied. Though still tilting negative, the poll’s numbers are an improvement from 2001 to 2008, when as many as 68 percent of African-Americans were dissatisfied with their treatment by American society.
Still, there’s no denying that many things have improved since 1963. Gone are the obvious vestiges of Jim Crow laws, from segregated schools and public accommodations to the criminalization of interracial marriage in several states and the narrow paths African-Americans had to achieve social, political and economic advancement.
African-American voters turned out in record numbers in 2008 and 2012, a legacy of federal voting rights legislation and the candidacy of the nation’s first African-American president, said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a former chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the only surviving speaker from the 1963 march.
Eighty-five percent of African-Americans complete high school today, compared with just 25 percent in 1963, according to the National Urban League 2013 “State of Black America” report. That’s contributed to nearly a tripling of African-Americans enrolled in college today versus a half-century ago, the report says. For every African-American college graduate back in 1963, there are now five.
The number of African-Americans living in poverty has shrunk from 48 percent in 1963 to 28 percent today. African-American children living in impoverished conditions dropped from 57 percent a half-century ago to 38 percent today, the Urban League study said.
“Fifty years ago if someone asked me if I would see a black president, I would say ‘Hell, no,’ ” said Roger Wilkins, a 1963 march attendee and former assistant attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson. “I’m an old man now, 80 years old. I have seen change, and I like the change, and I believe the civil rights movement made the whole country better.”
But for all the accomplishments, Lewis thinks that some serious “setbacks, delays and interruptions,” fueled in part by the country’s reluctance to confront the sensitive issue of race, have hampered King’s dream.
African-American family income has risen since the 1960s, but the gap in wealth between white and African-American families has nearly tripled from $85,070 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009, according to a study this year by Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy. In 1963, African-American unemployment hit 10 percent. Last month, the African-American jobless rate was 12.6 percent. Last month’s overall unemployment rate was 7.4 percent.
Obama and Congress have shown little interest in specifically addressing financial and economic inequalities, even though the president told The New York Times last month that if Washington doesn’t do something, “Racial tensions won’t get better. The may get worse, because people will feel as if they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot.”
Lewis attributes Washington’s reluctance to “a mindset in America now of ‘How much more do you want, how much further must we go, what else do you want us to do?’ ”
“People say, ‘Well, we elected President Obama. That should be the fulfillment’ of our epic history,” Lewis added. “It’s not the fulfillment. It’s only a down payment. We’re not there.”
Algernon Austin, the director of the liberal Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, said the civil rights leaders of the 1960s succeeded in bringing change to the polls, public places and schools but fell short on employment and economic issues, which was the main thrust of the 1963 march.
Austin said few people remembered that A. Philip Randolph, the founding president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the opening speaker at the 1963 march, told the crowd that the event’s aim was more than “merely the passage of civil rights legislation.”
“Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens,” Randolph said. “But those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them.”
“It’s important to recognize that there are different ways to look at the March on Washington,” said Austin, who authored an Economic Policy Institute report this year on the march’s unfinished agenda. “The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights act are tremendous achievements. But achieving rights without fully obtaining the resources to actualize them is only a partial victory.”
Unfinished business is what’s bringing Lee-Payne back to Washington for the march’s 50th anniversary. King’s words on that hot, muggy day have never left her. To her, the dream continues.
“I’m hopeful and wishful that things will turn around,” she said. “And I want to recommit myself, and get others to commit, that we have to work together for a better America, a more perfect union.”