Why We Still March on Washington

Aug 26, 2013 | Updated Oct 26, 2013

Marchers came to Washington from near and far and from all walks of life on August 28, 1963. They came with courage and conviction and with hope for change and a better tomorrow.

As they witnessed violent resistance to desegregating public schools and to stamping out voter discrimination, some weary marchers, who braved cattle prods, water cannons, and K-9 dogs, also came to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial doubting that a nation, which had denigrated, disrespected, and disenfranchised its darker citizens for so long, would honor the check they came to cash -- a check affording them "the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

Those who marched for jobs, justice, freedom, and equality in 1963, and who shared Dr. King's dream and echoed his clarion call to let freedom ring, did not witness the conclusion of a long and hard-fought racial struggle for rights and recognition. Yet their collective action and sacrifices helped move the nation in the right direction.

The same can be said for those who celebrated the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama on January 20, 2009. Electing an African-American to be the 44th President of the United States, a milestone made possible by the sacrifices of people we know like Dr. King as well as countless people who served in silence like Cecil Gaines, was not the completion of the struggle for racial justice in America. It was another historic step in the right direction.

Being enslaved, being raped by slaveholders, being lynched by hooded mobs, being allowed to serve in the military but denied the right to vote, being denied equal pay for equal work, and being denied the right to use public schools and public accommodations on equal terms, are part of a long list of injustices endured by blacks in America.

Dr. King's dream called upon the nation to live up to its lofty ideals by putting an end to the overt forms of racial discrimination that prevented blacks from enjoying America's promise of equality of opportunity on the same terms as whites. However, there was much more to the dream and to the march. And it would take much more work to fan "the flames of withering injustice," which the 1963 marchers brought to the nation's undivided attention on a late summer day.

The Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the Fair Housing Act (1968) -- all part of the landmark civil rights legislation passed after the historic March on Washington -- helped to remove "the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination." But this was insufficient to address the glaring disparities between blacks and whites in income, wealth, education, health, and housing.

Fifty years later, as a Pew Center report reveals, these racial disparities persist and Americans remain deeply divided by race, class, and politics on how we view them and how they should be addressed. Blacks and whites do not see eye-to-eye nor do the rich and the poor nor do Democrats and Republicans. They remain divided on whether or not we still need to take affirmative action. They disagree about how much we need to rely upon the power of federal government.

Proponents of "post-racialism," the view that Dr. King's dream is now a concrete reality and that continued calls for racial justice are passé, are wont to attribute racial disparities to racial differences in talents, choices, and effort, and are thus inclined to view them as permissible from the standpoint of justice. They proclaim: "If Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Michael Jordan, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Tom Joyner, Tyler Perry, Kenneth Chenault, Herman Cain, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Dave Chappelle, Tiger Woods, Mae Jemison, and Maya Angelou can make it in America, then so can other blacks who refuse to let race be an excuse."

With good reason, today's marchers do not see things this way, nor do they make the unreasonable demand that justice requires equality of outcomes between blacks and whites. More judiciously, they call our attention to the ways in which the basic social institutions of our democratic society continue to create inequality of opportunity, creating advantage for some and disadvantage for others, with African-Americans being disproportionately over-represented among the worst off. 2013 marchers call attention to unfairness in the criminal justice system, the tax system, the public education system, and in the countless other institutional structures and processes that shape and color access to opportunity.

One year to the day before he was assassinated, in a 1967 speech against the war in Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. King implored America to "undergo a radical revolution of values." This philosophical revolution would compel Americans to reassess the fairness of their past and present policies, to confront the vast income and wealth gaps between the haves and the have-nots, and to accept shared responsibility for restructuring the social institutions that produce unfair social inequalities.

In his "I Have a Dream" speech, King said: "1963 is not an end but a beginning." 2013 may not be the beginning but it is far from the end. The bright days of justice cannot emerge in America so long as unjust racial disparities endure. Giving voice to this truth is why we still march on Washington.