Julian Bond, famous civil rights activist, wrote an article in USA Today this year on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. His selective memory pointed out the similarities of today’s economic woes of blacks to those of the 1960s. Unfortunately for him, his gloom-colored glasses did not spend enough time celebrating black breakthroughs in the political world, such as the first black president, two black Secretaries of State, numerous black mayors (even in unlikely locations like Utah). He also failed to mention the numerous blacks that have headed major Fortune 500 companies, started flourishing businesses, not to mention building literal empires in music, film and entertainment.
I jokingly refer to ground-breaking black “Millionaires Clubs,” which have their weekly meetings all over the United States. These clubs are the NFL, NBA, NBL and other professional sports organizations. These statistics are in addition to the fact that in 1965 there would have been no black middle class to speak of when Dr. King talked about the bounced check in his famous speech. To add insult to injury Julian Bond forgot to remind America that the NAACP, of which he is the chair, has recently diverted itself from moving the need for racial reconciliation from the front burner of America’s public policy concern. It now is attempting to advance gay rights as well, despite the socially conservative nature of a great number of its members.
Could it be that Bond forgot to remind us that there was a unified black civil rights movement 50 years ago but he now is one of numerous black leaders who have lost the urgency and focus they once had.
In retrospect, the specific policy objectives of the march—which included securing voting rights, desegregating schools, raising the minimum wage and implementing a federal job training program—feel almost secondary. What we remember most about the march was the vision Dr. King laid out for what America could be.
The March on Washington set a standard for impact and effectiveness which all protestors since have been seeking without success to match. The marchers unquestionably changed history touching the conscience of a nation. The advocates of nearly every cause since that time—from animal rights activists to radical environmentalists—have ached to capture just a fraction of the moral authority the March on Washington protesters possessed. Have any done so?
Half a century and countless marches later, photographs of thousands of people crowding the Capitol or the Washington Monument feel routine. For us Washington, DC residents, living in our city means four or five can occur each day. Depending on the event, few marchers are conducting themselves with the self-restraint and optimism that the footage of the original March on Washington reveals.
Of course the perceived success of today’s marches is almost completely dependent on mainstream media cooperation, and any protest organizer will tell you that not all marches receive equal media coverage. For over four decades, the March for Life has brought between a quarter and half a million marchers to Washington annually. The event typically receives little media coverage: the New York Times ignored it completely for five years in a row, while the Washington Post would run a few paragraphs in the local news section. By contrast, the Million Mom March held in 2000 received ample attention on all major television networks and in national newspapers despite much smaller estimated crowds—between 20,000 and 50,000. The Million Mom March held the following year had fewer than 200 attendees.
But one movement has arguably attempted to mimic the language and success of the March on Washington more brazenly than any other. In 1993, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered community self-consciously adopted the vocabulary of the original March on Washington when they held theMarch on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. (Not to be confused with the Capital Pride Parade, the annual celebration of lifestyles. In its own words, it’s like Mardi Gras, but with half-naked men and drag queens.) Since then, LGBT advocates have clothed every legislative initiative in the language of the Civil Rights Movement, taking for granted the moral equivalence of sexual preference and race.
Every generation has at least one moral battle that defines it, but today, absolutely no one agrees on what that is. Is it the definition of marriage, the sanctity of life, and the size and power of government? Or is it the societal approval of homosexuality, the sanctity of animal life, and the regulation of energy use? Every cause has its marchers, but the unity and power of that moment in 1963 continues to elude us.
What many people forget about the 1963 march is that it was the culmination of years of work and prayer in response to centuries of patient suffering. Its leader willingly laid down his life for the cause. Dr. King and his followers showed the world something they had never seen before: an unimaginably diverse crowd of peaceful and dignified protesters, calling on America to live up to its founding ideals. It led to needed change, peacefully achieved. We may desire to recapture the power of that day, but for now, we should simply remember it with gratitude. This would especially appropriate for Julian Bond and leaders like him, who seems to have developed a taste for of social, moral and spiritual Alzheimer.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.