Fifty Years Ago: The March On Washington (1963)

Fifty Years Ago: The March On Washington (1963)

"Hundreds of thousands descended on Washington, D.C.'s, Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963. It was from the steps of the memorial that King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. King's many speeches and nonviolent actions were instrumental in shaping the nation's outlook on equality." By "US Government Photo" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Hundreds of thousands descended on Washington, D.C.’s, Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963. It was from the steps of the memorial that King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. King’s many speeches and nonviolent actions were instrumental in shaping the nation’s outlook on equality.” By “US Government Photo” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963, the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” marked a pivotal moment in the post-World-War-Two-era of the Civil Rights Movement. During that rally joined by between 200,000 and 300,000 participants, Martin Luther King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

During the next two years, two seminal pieces of civil rights legislation were passed: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed voter discrimination and racial segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled federal oversight of elections in order to ensure black voters were not disenfranchised by various schemes. Such had been the practice since the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War, especially in the former Confederate states of the US South.

The FBI versus the Civil Rights Movement

At the same time, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who saw MLK as at least a communist sympathizer, tried to subvert the Civil Rights Movement. Hoover ordered surveillance on King and there is evidence to suggest that the FBI tried to persuade King to kill himself by blackmailing him with compromising material from King’s extramarital affairs. An FBI memo at the time characterized King as “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

Barack Obama’s 2013 speech on Martin Luther King’s legacy

The 44th POTUS took the opportunity to commemorate the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King in a speech that highlighted the accomplishment of that era, but also acknowledged the remaining challenges.

And there are many: Higher unemployment and incarceration rates for peope of color, racial suspicion leading to unnecessary death as in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, racial profiling by police forces and ‘stop-and-frisk’ laws, or even open racist hostility against Obama himself. Racist anti-Obama signs displayed at Tea Party rallies and the Birther Movement questioning Obama’s American citizenship and legitimacy illustrate that in this regard, even at the highest level of power, there is no escape from the dynamics of society at large.

Race is over, say conservatives

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal: Why do you immigrants want to be chunks of salad? You should jump into the melting pot and become real Americans!

Some American conservatives beg to differ, of course. In a recent op-ed addressing the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R), who is Indian American, and a possible 2016 presidential contender, argues for “the end of race” in America.

But contrary to the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. et al., his solution to race-related social issues in America is not to address them, but to ignore them. Jindal claims that “too much emphasis [is put] on [Americans’] “separateness,”” and that “[w]e live in the age of hyphenated Americans.” In his opinion “we must resist the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl.” Oh those metaphors for America!

But in my opinion, Jindal sets up a strawman argument here. Judging from my personal reading of current events (and history) in America, the real issue is not that racial and/or ethnic groups care about their cultural heritage. The real issue is that the construct of race, as it has developed throughout American culture and history, has negative real-life effects on those not designated as white (plus male, heterosexual, etc.).

Furthermore, the idea of a mainstream American culture that people can melt into, as Israel Zangwill’s ‘melting pot’ metaphor suggests, is in itself not neutral. Who gets to define the mainstream culture? For a long time, the undisputed hegemon of mainstream American culture was the WASP male.

True, this has changed over time, to a certain degree, especially in the area of popular culture. Who would, for example, seriously deny the influence of African American culture on what became known as Rock’n’Roll, which conquered the world as a quintessentially American form popular music and youth rebellion. History thus suggests that in many ways, difference and a common culture have always coexisted in America on some level. As an outsider, I think that this is actually great about America.

As I see it, the subtext of Jindal’s article seems to be that in order to be one happy American family, everybody should adopt white mainstream culture. My suspicion is that Governor Jindal is pandering to old white men, who are currently the core GOP constituency, whom he wants to vote for him in 2016.

Fox News: Just ignore racism!

Also in the ‘racism is over’ camp are the usual suspects, namely the Fox ‘News’ punditariat. Recently, host Bill O’Reilly was talking about an incident whereas African American billionaire talk show host Opray Winfrey, who was travelling abroad in Switzerland, was not shown a very expensive handbag in a store because the clerk did not know who she was, and apparently thought that a random black woman could not afford such a luxurious item. O’Reilly suggested that, in general, people should just ignore racists, because there would be no use in trying to change their minds. But as I mentioned before, as opposed to Bill O’Reilly, people of color in America often do not have the white privilege of ignoring racism.

Coopting King for political parties

As Martin Luther King, Jr. is such an American icon and the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, it is no wonder that both big political parties want to coopt King’s legacy for their own political purposes. Republicans are claiming that MLK was one of them. But King did not endorse any of the two parties.

One might speculate that, were he alive today, King would side with some of the Democrats’ policies. Back in his day, King criticized the racism of the GOP (and many Southern Democrats would join the GOP). But he was also critical of the Vietnam War and might certainly have some critical words about Obama’s drone war, the totalitarian surveillance by the NSA, and the unwillingness to curb the obscene excesses of capitalism on Wall Street.

Read, see, and hear more:

[Video] “Civil Rights Pioneer Gloria Richardson, 91, on How Women Were Silenced at 1963 March on Washington.” (Democracy Now, 2013/08/27)

Martin Luther King: Too far, too fast, just right.” (Roger Simon, Politico, 2013/08/27) – White racial panic in 1963: “To most black people, the March on Washington a half-century ago was about hope. To most white people, it was about fear.”

I Have A Dream” – Songs für und über Martin Luther King.” (Tarik Ahmia, Deutschlandradio Kultur, Radiofeuilleton – Musik, 27.08.2013)

[Video] “Obama March On Washington Speech: President Speaks On King’s Dream, Lingering Disparities.” – Suzanne Gamboa and Nancy Benac, AP, Huffington Post, 2013/08/28)

The Dark Side of “I Have a Dream”: The FBI’s War on Martin Luther King.” (David Corn, Mother Jones, 2013/08/28) – The FBI tried to subvert the Civil Rights Movement.

[Video] “Watch The March, the Masterful, Digitally Restored Documentary on The Great March on Washington.” (Open Culture, 2013/08/28) – A 1964 documentary by James Blue about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

This Black, Gay, Badass Pacifist Mastermind of the March on Washington Is Finally Getting His Due.” (Lauren WIlliams, Mother Jones, 2013/08/27) – A portrait of Bayard Rustin, adviser to Martin Luther King and organizer of the March on Washington.

Why some movements work and others wilt.” (John Blake, CNN, 2013/08/19) –  How social movements succeed and how they fail.