America will soon mark 60 years since the March on Washington. On Aug. 28, 1963, some 250,000 people gathered peacefully at the Lincoln Memorial to advocate for civil and economic rights for Black Americans.
Although it was a protest against racial discrimination, it also was an opportunity to show support for major civil rights legislation that had stalled in Congress.
It’s important to remember what happened that day, and the changes it brought for Black Americans, while reflecting on what remains to be done to eliminate racial discrimination. Understanding history is important to avoid repeating what was bad and using what was good as a springboard for further positive change.
Black Americans were hopeful after the election of President John F. Kennedy. Roughly 70 percent of Blacks had voted for Kennedy in 1960. Their expectations were high for change, but Kennedy’s narrow victory seemingly negated any voter mandate, leading him to be cautious in moving forward on controversial issues like civil rights legislation because he needed the support of the South, where racial discrimination was still the norm.
The march came together because hopes had been dashed that Kennedy would make any of the needed changes.
The president did not initially support the march, worried that there would be a disorderly mob prompting chaos. Seeing the big picture, Kennedy also thought the march might destroy public support for the civil rights movement, even making matters worse as racial tensions heightened nationwide.
But after meeting with organizers, Kennedy was behind the march by July.
At the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. The 34-year-old preacher from Atlanta gave people hope at a time in history when there was anything but that for Black people. Discrimination was rampant. The Ku Klux Klan was active around the country, and especially in the South. Black people could not live in white neighborhoods, use the same water fountains, attend the same schools or, in some states, even vote. They had to sit at the back of the bus and were not served in many restaurants.
Even here, a lot of Long Island was built with segregation securely in place, controlling where people lived and where their children went to school. Blacks and whites had to remain separate when it came to friendship and even love. Inter-marriage was illegal, and it was a common belief — albeit a very wrong one — that Blacks were not as intelligent as whites. They were not even permitted to swim in the same pools as white people.
Kennedy never stopped trying to pass his Civil Rights Act. But it was President Lyndon Johnson who signed it into law after Kennedy’s assassination.
The law ultimately supported what the march was all about. It was a guarantee that Blacks would have equal voting rights, outlawed discrimination in restaurants, employment and theaters, and encouraged school desegregation.
The march was also responsible for the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing the poll tax, which was a requirement for some to vote.
Yet there is much that still needs to be done. The FBI released a report this spring showing that hate crimes are on the rise, with far more than half of them targeting people because of their race or ethnicity. Additionally, the distribution of racist, antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ propaganda — flyers, stickers, banners, graffiti and posters — rose by 38 percent in 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Next year, voters will weigh in on New York’s Equal Rights Amendment, designed to prohibit discrimination based on ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes. While Albany has created a number of laws over the years to ensure equality, the ERA would enshrine it in the state Constitution.
It seems the perfect time to remember the March on Washington and Dr. King’s inspiring words. There are plans underway for a march down Constitution and Independence avenues in Washington on Aug. 28 that will conclude at the Lincoln Memorial. It will be led by Martin Luther King III and his wife, Andrea Waters King, as well as the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader and the founder and president of the National Action Network.
The hope is that the march will inspire the continuation of Dr. King’s work and vision, and serve as an opportunity to highlight what is still needed to bring about peace, justice and equity around the world.
“The vision that Dad had is not one that cannot be achieved,” Martin Luther King III told The Washington Post. “We have made great strides, and then there seems to be always an inevitable setback.”