AFRICANGLOBE – There’s a bizarre dissonance that comes with watching the first Black Attorney General give a speech to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and recognizing that the themes of his speech might have fit well with those given at the original march, in 1963.
In an array of speakers at a commemorative event in Washington, D.C., on Saturday that included Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie, the N.A.A.C.P. president Ben Jealous, and Congressman John Lewis, the most sustained applause greeted the nation’s top law-enforcement officer.
That Eric Holder’s speech made explicit some implied truths—“But for the movement,” he said, “I would not be Attorney General and Barack Obama would not be President”—and nodded toward the humbling tenacity of unnamed thousands is not particularly surprising.
That he went on to articulate a demand that the right to vote be protected for every citizen, and that the criminal-justice system be freed of bias, is alternately noteworthy and depressing. The speech was, in that way, a metaphor for the original event and for the circumstances in which it took place.
The organizers saw that march as a way to elevate the cause, but their more radical critics wondered if it would really bring about any change. If there were any doubt about history’s verdict on which side of that debate was right, Holder’s speech was clarifying: both were.
The 1963 March on Washington, held at the Lincoln Memorial during the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, was at least partially a referendum on how far the nation had come since the dark moments of the Civil War. Malcolm X, a skeptical spectator at the march, remarked that he couldn’t see the significance of a gathering at a monument to a President who “has been dead for a hundred years and who didn’t like us when he was alive.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., shared little of Malcolm X’s perspective, but even his “I Have a Dream” speech made reference to a promissory note that had gone unpaid for a century. On some level, the skepticism in the face of decades of thwarted democracy was reasonable. Yet, if there’s any measure of that march’s success, it’s to be seen in the fact that, half a century afterward, that event has itself become the reference point against which progress is measured. The Kennedy Administration faced entrenched opposition to civil rights in Congress, but the mobilization—and Kennedy’s assassination later that year—made passage of the legislation a reasonable possibility.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was the signature achievement of the movement, but its actual impact has never been harder to assess, largely because of the resemblance between the present and the past. Early in the afternoon, Al Sharpton addressed the gathering from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, flanked by the parents of Trayvon Martin and an array of civil-rights-era figures, including Jesse Jackson and John Lewis.
Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer spoke and, in so doing, pointed to the extent to which the movement now holds influence within the establishment. In 1963, King, Roy Wilkins, Dorothy Height, and other organizers met with John F. Kennedy to urge him to remain vigilant on the cause of civil rights. The organizers of the commemoration have far greater access to the Oval Office than their counterparts did fifty years ago, but the theme of vigilance remained.
Just outside the Lincoln Memorial, I spoke to Vera Sky, a seventy-three-year-old social worker who was holding a homemade sign that said “END THE SEQUESTER.” Amid an overwhelmingly African-American crowd, Sky, a diminutive White woman, stood out. She explained that she’d come because “I was here for justice in 1963, and I’m still waiting.” That sentiment was a theme.
Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, talked to me about the need to acknowledge history coexisting with the very current need to protect access to the vote in wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby v. Holder, which struck down crucial elements of the Voting Rights Act.
(One of the most visible delegations at the march was from North Carolina, which has just passed a law that will likely diminish Black voting; the state N.A.A.C.P. has been organizing “Moral Monday” demonstrations in protest of it for months.) And there was another reason why the march was important, Ifill told me. “It’s important just for us to see each other. This work can be isolating and dispiriting. It’s important to see that there are other people all over the country who care deeply about this cause.”
Ifill was referring to groups like the Dream Defenders, a group of African-American activists who have been sleeping in Florida’s capitol building for the last four weeks in an effort to force Governor Rick Scott to call the legislature to a special session to address the state’s Stand Your Ground laws, and who were gathered near the steps to the memorial.
“I think this was sold largely as a commemorative event, a chance to celebrate an incredible moment on this spot fifty years ago,” said Steven Pargett, twenty-four, an active member of the Dream Defenders. “But, I would hope that people leave with a feeling that there is a movement today, work that remains.”
By: Jelani Cobb