August 28, 1963, was reported as being a beautiful summer day, with a high of 83 degrees for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. With an estimated 250,000 people arriving in Washington, D.C., from all over the country, it was one of the most pivotal and influential events in United States history and in the fight for civil rights. This unprecedented turnout was a testament to a desire to see change, the power of a unified people, the power of organization, and a belief in democracy. Those who were among the sea of witnesses say they will never forget that monumental day that changed America. I wish I could’ve been there.
During the early 1960s, social tensions exploded in the U.S., especially in the South, where Blacks were spat on, chased, hosed down, brutally beaten, or even killed. Their basic rights were either limited or flat-out denied in housing, voting, public accommodations, and employment. Numerous non-violent, peaceful civil rights demonstrations and protests were held, fighting for their rights as American citizens. It was a must, a necessity. Things couldn’t remain the way they were going. A change had to come.
These demonstrations moved President John F. Kennedy to send to Congress a civil rights bill (June 19, 1963). To put pressure on Congress, the major civil rights groups planned and organized this large national demonstration to be held in the nation’s capital. The march was organized by A. Phillip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and longtime strategist Bayard Rustin and included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (SCLC), James Farmer (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), and Whitney Young, National Urban League. Shortly after, the group expanded to include other religious and labor interests. The march was about more than racial equality. It was about economic equality as well. Their demands included, but were not limited to, full and fair employment, an increase in minimum wage nationwide to $2/hour (equivalent to approximately $19 today), decent housing, adequate integrated education, the right to vote, and meaningful civil rights legislation.
So, on that beautiful August day of 1963 and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, civil rights leaders took to the podium one by one to issue calls to action for America to live up to its creed that all men are created equal. It was a clarion call for justice. One of the most iconic speeches in American history that still resonates decades later was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. One of the greatest orators of the twentieth century and perhaps in all American history, King called out America’s failure to protect human and civil rights. Near the end of his speech, singer Mahalia Jackson implored King to tell the crowd about “the dream.” The crowd’s response to his dream was electrifying and a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement. King’s speech played a critical role in passing landmark anti-discrimination legislation, which included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which mainly dealt with unfair housing issues.
A part of King’s dream was that one day we would live in a nation where we would not be judged by our skin color but by our character’s content. Now, sixty years later, how does that look? Where do we stand? We’ve come a long way, for sure. After all, who would’ve thought that we’d have a Black president? While we’ve come a long way, we can attest to the fact that we have not eliminated racism in our nation, especially anti-Black racism. We cannot overlook that, no more than we can overlook and erase the past, no matter what some of the politicians are trying to do. We have not eliminated the racial disparities in wealth, education, employment, health, housing, rates of incarceration, and more. Also, there are other judgments against people to be considered and, yes, even biases within our Black communities. We must continue moving forward in our quest for equal treatment and opportunities.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s youngest daughter, Dr. Bernice King, founded the Be Love movement. It is described as a growing movement of courageous acts to achieve justice. On thekingcenter.org website, Dr. Bernice King said Be Love means implementing the demands of justice. It means using our power to correct everything that stands against love. It means digging in, creating a beloved community, and rising up to be love. Her children’s book is entitled “It Starts With Me!” and I truly agree. It really does start with me…..and you. Happy 60th Anniversary to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Janet Downs| Janet Downs is an instructor with over 20 years of experience, having worked with Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations. She volunteers and is a resource for the homeless community and is working towards starting her own non-profit. She’s passionate about mental health and seeks to bring more awareness to the black community. She is active in church ministry, a writer, and loves music, hiking, and travel.