Few half-century commemorations raise as many complex and uncomfortable questions as does the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington:
With a black man in the White House, has Martin Luther King’s dream been realized? With American social mobility seeming to be stalled, is the American Dream a dream deferred? With nearly a million black men in prison, is the King dream a dream denied? Plus: Why did the events of August 1963 sear us all so indelibly? What was the power in that speech, and in that march?
These questions haunt a nation that yearns to be post-racial. But in asking them — and they are top-of-mind for so many of us this season — we sometimes overlook the remarkable development behind it all, and behind this summer’s commemorations.
The civil rights movement, lasting roughly from 1955 to 1968 but with antecedents reaching far earlier and with effects cascading far later, produced a profound transformation — and has itself experienced just as profound a transformation.
It has been transformed in American memory from a much-reviled outsiders’ movement making what seemed to be extremist demands into a much-beloved popular uprising that almost seamlessly extended the logic of American values to a broader base of the nation. Many of its roots were in the effort to open the schoolhouse doors, and today its goals (and incomplete achievements) are so widely embraced that schools are closed in the middle of each January to celebrate its aspirations.
It began as a terrifying assault on broad, commonplace practices, led by the bold and the brave, steeped in civil disobedience, prosecuted on buses and at lunch counters and at the violent end of the fire hoses of the powerful. It evolved in memory into a proud, broad-based surge of honor whose principal genius is celebrated with a holiday and a Washington monument. Abraham Lincoln today has only the monument, no longer the holiday.
In history’s long view, Lincoln and King — one white and one black, one a 19th-century martyr and the other a 20th-century one — might be remembered as relay runners in the same long-distance race. Indeed, long before it was the backdrop for King’s speech, Lincoln’s memorial, its Doric columns symbolizing ancient and eternal values, was the backdrop of Marian Anderson’s contralto in a celebrated 1939 episode of defiance and determination to the strains of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”
In the pitch-perfect symmetry afforded by the decimal system, we mark the 50th anniversary of King’s dream in the same year as the 150th anniversary of those other hinges of history, the Emancipation Proclamation and Battle of Gettysburg, and of the only other speech in all of American history that changed the American character, the Gettysburg Address, whose anniversary is but a dozen weeks away.
Lest anyone believe that every heart was turned by the summer march of 1963, we must recall that we mark another 50th anniversary this year, in three weeks: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that left four girls dead. Three of them would have been 64 in this anniversary year; one would have been 61: grandmothers, perhaps, maybe nearing retirement in a world they might not have recognized.
And lest anyone think that an event marked for decades by presidents was embraced by the president at the time, remember how the prospect of this march unsettled John F. Kennedy, who watched nervously on a black-and-white television in the White House and met with the demonstration’s leaders afterward. In the next march that rocked Washington and the nation’s conscience, the May 1970 demonstration against the invasion of Cambodia and the student deaths at Kent State, Richard M. Nixon also met with the protesters. It was a furtive meeting, to be sure. It occurred at the Lincoln Memorial.
The transformation that King began — the twin of the transformation prompted by Lincoln’s speech at a battlefield cemetery — is one of the most significant in human history, and it is, along with the victory over four tyrannies that required one hot war and another cold one, a signature American achievement of what once was called the American Century.
But before the self-congratulation becomes too hearty, let’s remember that this is not a “mission accomplished” moment and that all this was prompted by one of the greatest injustices in all of human history, a stain on the American story that begs a different question, still without an answer: Why did it take so long?
From our perspective here in the second term of the Barack Obama administration, the turning point almost surely was the August agonistes of 1963. For it is almost certain that the spark that bridged the gap between the unimaginable and the inevitable was that March on Washington.
“That march was the ultimate mobilization of what had been going on in all of the cities of the South, the ultimate gathering that expressed what was on the mind of black America,” Vernon Jordan, the former president of the National Urban League, said in a telephone conversation this summer. “What happened 50 years ago is that it all came together and the world could see it and appreciate its meaning.”
It is difficult to remember today, when that march is a monument in memory — cast in stone, you might say, like the Lincoln and King memorials — that the genius of it all wasn’t only in the careful planning of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. It also grew out of the improvisation prompted by Mahalia Jackson, once so well known that it wasn’t necessary to identify her as the Queen of Gospel.
King was deep into his oration when Jackson, who had sung at a rally to raise money for the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, worried that he was losing his forward momentum. She urged him: Tell them about the dream, Martin.
King had given his “dream” riff many times — it wasn’t a new element of his repertoire when he stood on the Lincoln Memorial steps. Then again, Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, with its biblical allusions and rhythms, wasn’t a complete original either. The result wasn’t only history. It changed history.