Revisiting the March on Washington and the “I have a Dream” speech

August 25, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Posted in African American, Bigotry in America, blacks, Congress, desegregation, discrimination, Emancipation Proclamation, employment, Equal Opportunity, equality, Ethnicity in America, European American, happiness, I have a dream, justice, March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Media and Race, minority, President, President Obama, voting rights act, whites | 2 Comments
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America this week recognized and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and the speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Much attention has been paid to the March and the speech. Unfortunately, most people do not know what either the March or the speech was about. They believe they know, but their responses to two questions will reveal the extent of their knowledge. The first question is how much progress has been made over these past 50 years? The second question is how would Dr. King react to the present day reality? The answers to these questions are not set in stone, but will vary depending on a variety of conditions relative to the responders—things like ethnicity, age, social status, education, politics etc.
In response to the first question regarding the progress made during the last 50 years, we must first set the perimeters relative to the March. The organizers proclaimed the objective of the March was to focus Washington of the problem of jobs and freedom for poor and working-class Americans in general, and African Americans specifically, since they were the ones most directly affected. The March was seen by many European Americans as a gathering of minority protesters, especially African Americans to try and get Washington to listen to their complaints; some thought of the March as a nuisance and waste of time.
Many of the African Americans saw the March as an opportunity for all people, especially minorities to show Washington that they were united in the desire for better jobs, wages and freedoms in general. They believed that power and strength would be reflected in the large number of March participants to the degree that Washington could not ignore them. So, after years of planning by the civil rights activists and other American citizens, the March envisioned by A. Phillip Randolph, and orchestrated by Bayard Rustin, took place.
Today, when society looks back 50 years to measure the progress made relative to jobs and freedom, the response must be not very much progress has been made. Poor and working-class Americans are still experiencing the same problems that Dr. King and other leaders outlined in the speeches. The average wage is actually lower than the medium wages 50 years ago when inflation is figured in the assessment. Many citizens are unemployed and must depend on the government for help. Many citizens must work two and three jobs just to try to meet some of their financial obligations. The cost of education and housing has put many Americans in precarious positions that threaten their ability to move forward. But the most important occurrence affecting the poor, the working class, and the ethnic population is the changes in the voting laws of a number of states. The changes made by states like Texas and North Carolina would result in disenfranchising many of the Americans by denying them the vote. So, the answer to the progress question reflects a lack of progress having been made since 1963 relative to jobs and minority freedoms.
The answer to the second question regarding how Dr. King would react to the present-day reality would be anger. He would be angry and disappointed for a number of reasons. Too many African Americans saw the March as a moment and not the beginning of a movement, so much time has been wasted in addressing the needs of the people and not creating solutions for those problems. Much more should have been accomplished regarding all aspects of American life. The people who knew Dr. King knew him to be a non-violent militant; he believed in direct non-violent confrontation. That is why the March on Washington was deliberately a peaceful march.
One major mistake made by the media, the African Americans and the European Americans who knew what the March and speech were all about, did not set the record straight regarding both. Many European Americans then as now think of the “I have a dream” speech as a statement of celebration, an expression of all the progress the African Americans had made to that point. So, the March was seen as a celebration of all the good things that had happened to that point. The problem with that thinking is that it was wrong. The March on Washington as well as Dr. King’s speech was elements of protest, not praise. The fact that African Americans and European Americans who had worked so hard to bring these phenomena together did not increase their efforts to have the problems of jobs and freedom resolved represent the disappointment.
Many Americans today still see the March and the speeches as evidence of progress because they continue to embrace the theme of “I have a dream.” They do not realize that the only reason Dr. King spoke of the dream was because he could not experience the reality, a reality that had been promised by America in its democratic creed of “Life, liberty, and freedom for all.” When we revisit the objectives of the March and speeches we realize that very little have changed regarding the expressions of liberty and freedoms for all because the concept and attitude of many American regarding America are still grounded in the idea of a “white America.” Too many Americans still see America as a “white” society and as long as they can wield the power to keep it that way, they will.
America has been changing since it began, but the changes have been so gradual that some people did not realize that changes were taking place. The eye-opening experience for many of these people was the election of Barack Obama as President. The anger, hatred, bias, frustration and violence directed towards President Obama are not, for all intent and purposes, for Obama personally. All these things are expressions of fear and losing that President Obama represents to their view of America. Many European Americans fear losing the power to create the perception of America and the privileges that has historically been associated with a “white” identity. Unfortunately, that perspective does not fit with the democratic philosophy that was set in motion at this country’s beginning. Unless and until America changes its founding creed, society will continue to move in a democratic direction regardless of the set-backs and slowness.

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  1. I know you have not done a survey to really see what “most” African-Americans” think of or believe about the speech, or even what expectations should expected going forward. I know you did not do that survey of some let alone “MOST”.

    The speech that was given by Dr. King has taken on slightly different meanings and expectations threw the years but the underlying belief is that the speech spoke of a struggle for racial and economic freedom. Each person measures or quantifies that scope according to their own observances.

    Whether people then and now fully understood the speech is not relevant either, as long as they understood it was a speech about moving forward non-violently to secure racial and economic freedoms, and even the right to choose where they live, and to acquire the liberties of a free people.

    You can set your perimeters but don’t attempt set your perimeters for others, they will set their own based on their observances and their life dealings.

  2. A very perceptive piece, Dr. Lehman.


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