Set on Freedom

by John Lawrence

There was an oddly familiar atmosphere to the pre-demonstration activities: a houseful of college-era friends, makeshift sleeping arrangements, a hurried breakfast before piling into cars and Metro, and heading off to the National Mall. But there we were, significantly grayer of hair and slightly achier of joints, though no less committed of mind. Our antique buttons of the civil rights era had been dug out of boxes and drawers and faithfully affixed to our shirts and jackets. The 50th anniversary of the iconic March on Washington had arrived, and we were part of the commemoration.

Even for historians – and there were four of us in our little group – it is difficult to conceive the sweep of changes that had taken place over the past half century in the area of civil rights law. Not only African Americans (who heard the word “Negro” on Wednesday more than at any time in the past four decades) but women, the disabled, LGBT, immigrants and others could hardly have imagined the multiple ways America would alter its laws and views on the rights of Americans to equal opportunity in the years following the original March. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and exhorted the country to embrace change, none could have foreseen the force of the transformations and tragedies about to engulf us in the ‘60s and beyond: church bombing, Goodman-Schwerner-Cheney, multiple assassinations, Vietnam, Watts, Chicago, Watergate – a few of the words whose impacts changed our lives dramatically in the months and years to come. Certainly none could imagine that the President addressing the Anniversary March would be the offspring of a union that was, at the time of the original demonstration, illegal in many states.

Wednesday’s celebration of the 1963 March was an instructive example of the value of a nation’s historic sense of itself. In the coverage of the March, particularly the press and media stories describing the America of mid-1963, we were reminded of a seemingly antiquated world that existed well within the lifetimes of tens of millions of Americans, the remnants of which are persistent reminders that the struggle is far from complete.

One of the stunning reminders was the rebroadcast of the Meet the Press program of Sunday, August 25, 1963 in which a panel of white, male reporters questioned and challenged the guests, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Roy Wilkins. The two guests were among the leaders of the imminent March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and were not yet recognized as the transformational leaders we now recognize them to have been. The interview was a revealing look into the anxieties of most of white America, with many of the questions focused (politely, for the most part) on the suspicions of Communist influence in the ranks of civil rights leaders, and suggestions that the pace of change endorsed by March organizers was too hurried.

King and Wilkins, of course, were having none of that, and gently but unwaveringly reminded the reporters, and the Nation, that appeals for moderation in defense of Constitutional rights was unlikely to find much sympathy among millions of black Americans who, having suffered slavery, violence, discrimination and denial for three and a half centuries, had found their voice and their footing. If anyone needs reminding of the courage it took for black people to challenge a racist legal system and indifferent power structure in 1963, you need not look to the billy clubs and dogs of Birmingham but to the atmosphere in the NBC studio that Sunday morning.

The absence of Republicans from the events on Wednesday was a stark reminder of the party’s deep indifference to those still struggling for equality and opportunity. Actually, “indifference” is a generous term for a party that is aggressively engaged in rolling back some of the basic achievements of the civil rights era, particularly voting rights. Republicans have also reverted to the antebellum principle of Nullification, either by statute or by defunding mechanisms, to defy and undermine lawfully enacted statutes with which they disagree. A party that tolerates and encourages efforts to deny citizens the right to vote has abandoned any credible claim to leadership, not to mention signing its own electoral death warrant in multiple swing states where minority and youth voters cannot comprehend the politics of exclusion.

As incomprehensible as such behavior is in the states, things are no better in Congress. Just this week, a Democratic congressman told me that his effort to add a non-controversial civil rights amendment to a House bill was rejected by his committee chairman despite the acquiescence of the Republican subcommittee chair. The reason: no amendments would be allowed. No discussion needed.

Hopefully, this utter indifference to the needs and demands of millions of our fellow citizens is rooted only in misguided political calculations rather than some deeper-seated mentality, not that it makes any practical difference. Of course, it is also egregiously self-defeating since you do not need a Ph.D. in statistics to chart the changing electoral demographics in states like Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia and Ohio, and several more. If one or two of those states becomes reliably Democratic in presidential and Senate elections due to the rapidly rising numbers of new voters, Republicans face a daunting challenge to find 270 electoral votes. Little wonder Republican legislators believe their only, and perhaps last, line of defense is to keep these citizens from voting, but that doesn’t sound like a strategy destined for success. And while they may be able to retain a disproportionate number of House seats thanks to gerrymandering that dilutes minority voting strength in these same states, they will face retribution on that front as well in 2020, if not sooner.

One of the reasons that 50 year old Meet the Press program was so powerful was because it so starkly reminded us that in the America of 1963, the struggle for civil rights was anything was easy. People risked, and lost, their lives challenging the very biases so evident in the questioning of those skeptical reporters. What many now remember as a national moment of coming together on the Mall was, in fact, a severe challenge to the status-quo in a country that still widely embraced legal segregation.

The issues that flowed from the basic victory of the civil rights movement – an end to legal discrimination based on race – were complicated, and more difficult to address than we had hoped: economic opportunity, equality of education and health services, inequity in prison sentencing, housing, persistent poverty, many of the issues which President Obama and other speakers referenced on Wednesday. But on the basic issue, the equality of all Americans under the Constitution, there is far less disagreement than there was in 1963, and that is an achievement in and of itself. In 50 years, we have ventured far from the 350 years of systematized brutality and exploitation that preceded it, thanks to citizen activism and a willingness to challenge the powers that be. It shouldn’t be this hard, and it shouldn’t require unrelenting struggle, but as the song advised us, “we shall overcome someday.”