In keeping with the passing of the historical baton to the next generation, this column would be very remiss if it did not acknowledge or pay homage to the 50-year anniversary of the historic March on Washington. The 28th of August 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the massive march for jobs and freedom, which had been denied to a racially segregated and disenfranchised African-American people. It was essentially a march for human respect and basic civil rights. Sadly over the years the remembrance and celebration of this landmark event has been somewhat tempered and reduced to a celebration of only Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
However, without diminishing the power of the message of Dr. King’s speech, The March on Washington should be remembered for its broader implications as well as its historical emergence. We should not forget the countless “unnamed warriors” without whom the civil rights struggle could not have begun or been sustained.
The civil rights struggle involved more than The March on Washington. Young people should know that the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott was a key event in the civil rights struggle. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, having decided that she was not going to give up her bus seat in servile deference to Whites, became the catalyst to a struggle which not only catapulted Dr. King to national fame but also built a model that Blacks in other Southern cities were soon to emulate.
Thus, in 1963, the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans launched a series of massive demonstrations to expose the contradictions in U.S. society and demanded serious social change. One of the most notable of these was the Birmingham Demonstration of April 3, 1963 under the leadership of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Racist violence continued to flare up against the demonstrators, but the peaceful marchers were adamant in their push for fair employment, desegregation of public facilities and dropping of politically motivated charges against the thousands of demonstrators arrested. Dr. King once stated, “Often the path to freedom will carry you through prison.”
With more than 200,000 participants, The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was easily the largest and most dramatic multi-racial march in U.S. history. But the struggle for freedom, justice and equality was not achieved through one major march on Washington nor by the parade of powerful and eloquent speakers. However, it must be viewed as another historical step in that direction — another passing of the historical baton.
It is important for young people to know their history and to understand that the 1960’s was a time when young people across this country received the historical baton. It was a time when they were breaking through racist barriers, opening up closed doors of opportunity, and raising critical questions about gender inequality, the war in Vietnam and the unequal distribution of wealth and power in this country.
The mid-sixties were filled with new challenges and creative possibilities, where strategies of violence were in sharp contention with ideals of peace. Two years following The March on Washington, I accepted the historical baton. And I am charged with the responsibility of passing it on to the next generation.
Reflections by Kevin D. Sawyer:
I was born a month to the day after The March on Washington. And in my lifetime the stories and images of the Sixties have been permanently etched in my mind.
Those pioneers of The March on Washington have passed the baton to us. Our history admonishes us to be vigilant in the face of subtle and overt racism. Those things coupled with discrimination in employment, housing, banking and failing educational institutions still plague too many people in this country. Along with inadequate health care, gender discrimination, political malfeasance, and disparities in the criminal justice system, these things all have a diminishing affect on life’s opportunities.
As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West said in their book, The Future of the Race, “Dr. King did not die so that half of us would ‘make it,’ and half of us perish, forever tarnishing two centuries of struggle and agitation for our equal rights.”
Thus, the “Yes We Can” change President Obama spoke of during his initial campaign is the same change President Kennedy spoke of when he said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” I am that future.