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Much progress has been made; much more still remains to be done

Much progress has been made since the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech gave us a vision and challenge.

Much still remains to be done for there to be freedom, justice, equality, wellbeing, democracy and peace for all.

We gained civil rights, voting rights, fair housing and medicare among the laws.  We can sit at lunch counters and on busses together as people of different races.  We can marry people of other races.

Marching through civic engagement, we gained new eyes to see each other as people.  We gained voices to challenge oppression and inequality, so we have became part of the process and continue to be.  Stories we cover in The Fig Tree tell the continued commitment to love, care, educate, advocate and march together.

We’ve made progress, but the only way for discrimination to end is for people to claim their power and continue to raise their voices against today’s challenges.

Speakers at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Equality on Aug. 28 captured the history and the moment of challenge today to end oppression for people of all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age or ability.  They called for: living wages, the right for workers to organize, no child going to bed hungry, affordable health care, the criminal justice system to work for everyone, every neighborhood to have a good school, and an end to violence in homes and communities.

• Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League said, “We have to wake up to unfair legality posing as morality....and to the pursuit of power for power’s sake.”

• Linda Johnson Robb, daughter of former President Lyndon Johnson, said, “We need to see that everyone benefits from racial and economic equality.  We need to find and work with unexpected allies.” 

• President John Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, said, “We need to put the force of government on the side of the movement to recognize that we face a moral crisis.”

• The Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network  recalled 50 years of struggle to break down the walls of apartheid in America, to beat Jim Crow laws.  He warned to watch for James Crow, Jr., Esq., laws that deny people the right to vote, establish stop-and-frisk practices for African American youth and bring unequal economic opportunities. “We must continue to fight until the dream is reality,” he said.

• Oprah Winfrey,TV talk show host, told people to see that their destinies are intertwined and their hopes and dreams are the same:  “Like King, when we see suffering and injustice, we must refuse to look the other way, knowing injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

• The Hon. John Lewis, civil rights activist and now Congressional representative from Alabama knows the change.  He grew up in cotton fields of Alabama.  He was in the Freedom Ride to end the exclusion of “Whites only” and “Coloreds only” signs that have disappeared, except for museums.  He could not register to vote, so he was among those arrested for trying to participate in the democratic process.

King, he said, taught “us the way of peace, love and nonviolence.”  He taught “us to stand up, speak up and find ‘a way against the way,’ so people put their bodies on the line for a cause greater than themselves.”

• Former President Jimmy Carter said it was unlikely he, former President Bill Clinton or President Barack Obama would have been presidents without King. 

When Carter returned from World War II, he served on the school board in Plains, Ga.  He found white children went to school in nice brick buildings, but African-American children had 26 schools—in churches, living rooms and barns—because there were no school busses.  They had outdated, worn-out school books with white children’s names in them.  Front fenders of busses they finally provided to bus black students were painted black. 

“It’s not enough to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a meal,” he said, challenging new voter ID laws, stand-your-ground laws, 42 percent unemployment for African-American youth, and 835,000 African Americans being in prison—five times more than when he was in office.

• Clinton was a 17-year-old boy, watching the March on Washington on TV in Arkansas.  He said it was an empowering moment when people gained power to “open the stubborn gates of freedom.”

“We should not live and die complaining about gridlock, but should put our shoulders against the stubborn gates,” he said “to build an education system that will give all children a common core of knowledge and give all Americans affordable access to college and training programs.”

He also made the point that “a great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy assault weapons.”

With the landscape of America “littered with lost dreams of all Americans,” he called for everyone to “join in pushing over the stubborn gates together.”

• Martin Luther King III called for redoubling efforts.  He was five years old when his father spoke in Washington.  He brought his five-year-old daughter so she would appreciate the history and continue to participate in his father’s challenge for the nation “to be a better nation for all God’s children” and for people to love each other.

• Christine King Farris, King’s sister, said “our challenge as followers of his life, leadership and legacy is to carry forward his work, to be champions of nonviolence in our homes, communities, places of work and worship, every day in every way.”  She urged people not to be discouraged, distracted or defeated by setbacks, but to know the work to fulfil the dream goes on.

• The Rev. Bernice King who was five months old that day, rejoiced that the 2013 event involved three Presidents, because 50 years ago the President did not attend.  Women were involved in planning and speaking, but no woman spoke in 1963. She honored leaders of 1963 as they bequeath the message to a new generation.  As her mother, Coretta Scott King, said, “Every generation must earn freedom.”

She called people to reflect, renew and rejuvenate for the struggle for freedom and justice, because there are still policies and practices steeped in racial injustice, economic inequality and the cycle of violence. 

At 3 p.m., her speech led into ringing the bell from the 16th St. Baptist Church of Birmingham, as a call “to let freedom ring across the nation, and in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Florida,” she said.

• President Obama then summarized 50 years of changes and setbacks since the first March on Washington that awakened “America’s long slumbering conscience.” 

“King gave a mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions and offered a salvation path to oppressed and oppressors,” he said, adding that the day belonged to ordinary people, whose names are not in history books or on TV.

Through campaigns, boycotts, voter registration drives, smaller marches, setbacks and heartbreaks, Obama said that the march inspired people to pray for their tormenters, stand up and sit in with the moral force of nonviolence and go to jail to protest unjust laws, learning that freedom must be won “through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.”

While the flame of justice flickered, it never died, Obama said, pointing out that because they marched, America changed, civil rights and voting rights laws passed,  and city councils to Congress and the White House changed: “America became more free and more fair for everyone,” he said.

“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress or suggest little changed, dishonors those who had courage and made sacrifices to march in the 1960s.  It would also dishonor those heroes to suggest the work is complete.  The arc of the moral universe may bend towards  justice, but it does not bend on its own.  The gains secured require constant vigilance.  We will suffer setbacks, but the country has come too far.  Those of goodwill are too plentiful for those of ill will to change history’s currents,” he said.

Obama said King’s dream has been the dream of every American, but the position of working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded making the dream more elusive.

He recognizes the task will not be easy, given growing inequality, and as people believe “greed is good” and “compassion is ineffective.”

As progress seems stalled, hope seems diverted, and the country is divided, Obama warns not to let gears of democracy grind to a halt, nor let children to accept a life of lower expectations, where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie. 

He said that the march “reminds us that the promises of the nation will only be kept when we work together, igniting embers of empathy and the coalition of conscience expressed 50 years ago.”

He closed, reminding that the lessons from the past and the promise of tomorrow are that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.

We seek to help people join in that effort.

Mary Stamp – Editor

Copyright © September 2013 - The Fig Tree