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March On Washington 50: We Must Ring The Bell Of Economic Freedom

At 3 p.m. on August 28, the toll of bells echoed from churches, schools and institutions across America. Millions heard the synchronized bell ringing that marked the seminal moment in civil rights history punctuated by the final refrain of Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful message to this nation: “Let freedom ring.” It was during that hour some 50 years ago that the Baptist preacher, the galvanizing force of a movement, delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. He addressed men and women – 250,000 strong, mostly African American — who came from southern hamlets and urban hubs to Washington, DC to march for jobs and freedom. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – the monument of the Great Emancipator – his soaring speech inspired the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised to claim their inherent right to first-class citizenship. His words awakened the slumbering white masses that had accepted the segregated status of their fellow citizens, willing to be oblivious to the degradation, deprivation and violence that accompanied Jim Crow. He issued a challenge to America to fulfill its broken promises –“America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked insufficient funds – as he pushed for immediate nonviolent change – “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” The “Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call To Action” was the culmination of a week that gave Americans of different hues and generations the opportunity to recognize men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to open the doors of equality. From the White House to grassroots organizations, political and civil rights leaders used the occasion for more than homage and reflection. Event speakers – including civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Al Sharpton, actor Jamie Foxx, National Urban League CEO Marc Morial, entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among others – sought to ignite a new sense of activism among attendees to address a range of issues, from gun violence and education reform to health care and immigration. They attempted to capture the momentum palpable among the legions of marchers five decades ago. Then the demands included comprehensive civil rights legislation, desegregation of public schools and voting rights. And when King and other civil rights leaders – including the 23-year-old Lewis, the youngest speaker and today only surviving organizer of the 1963 gathering – delivered marching orders, the troops responded. They went back to local communities fired up, engaging in activities to advance the cause. Some volunteered to help with voting registration efforts. Many participated in boycotts of merchants promoting discriminatory practices. Others fought to integrate public accommodations and institutions. Within two years, the promise of real change came with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Each battle was hard won. The cost of victory was more than worn shoe leather or exhaustive political wrangling. It was life and death. At the ceremony, President Obama shared names of casualties of foot soldiers who had been on the front lines of the movement. His list included civil rights leader Medgar Evers; civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; President John F. Kennedy, killed just 86 days after the March; his brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, slain during his 1968 presidential campaign; and King, assassinated five years after the March and one day after his poignantly prophetic “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech. And there were countless innocent children, law-abiding citizens, freedom riders and volunteers. All Americans owe a debt to the victims who were tragically in the line of fire as well as the countless fallen heroes who contributed to this country’s reconstruction. Beyond African Americans, there have been a myriad of beneficiaries over the past five decades: women, Latinos, the LGBT community, the physically challenged — any group that has faced discrimination or been denied access to full participation in the American Dream at some point. These groups were represented among the Let Freedom Ring speakers, a more diverse collection than the 1963 March. They’re part of our changing America decreasingly being dominated by white males, components of a growing progressive, multicultural coalition. Clearly, the most powerful symbol of achievement — tangible evidence of advancement and potential of a people and a nation – was the sight of the first African American President standing at the podium where King delivered his transformative words. Barack Obama, our most prominent heir to the Dream, has said that day in 1963 served as a compass that directed his life to possibilities and the fact that ordinary folk can accomplish extraordinary things. The President used his speech to rally our nation to address the “great unfinished business” of the March, achieving economic justice. He called on the nation to find the courage to come together “for good jobs and just wages… from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia.” “The men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea,” he told the cheering crowd. “They were there seeking jobs as well as justice. Not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?” His words affirmed a common theme throughout the week’s activities: Civil rights advances – including his presidential milestone — must not obscure the March’s economic goals. The black unemployment rate at 13% remains almost twice as high as the rate for whites. Moreover, the Center of American Progress and Policy Link report that closing racial and ethnic gaps creates a more viable American economy: The gross domestic product—the total output of goods and services — would grow by an additional $1.2 trillion per year; federal, state and local tax revenues would increase by $192 billion; and 13 million people would be lifted out of poverty. “The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few,” said Obama. “It’s whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steel worker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran.” In his eloquent but blunt style, Sharpton urges African Americans to stop the campaign by conservatives to reverse gains we’ve made since 1963. Moreover, he told the crowd to be more vigilant in fighting the sophisticated, pernicious foes that attack voting rights and create an atmosphere in which open season on young African American and Latino males is not only permissible but endorsed. “We come here today as the children of Dr. King to say that we are going to face Jim Crow’s children because Jim Crow had a son called James Crow Jr., Esquire. He writes voting suppression laws and puts it in language that looks different but the results are the same. They come with laws that tell people to stand their ground. They come with laws to tell people to stop and frisk but I come to tell you just like our mothers and fathers beat Jim Crow we will beat James Crow Jr., Esquire.” Our mission, Sharpton asserts, is clear: The unwavering defense of the Dream: “We saw Dr. King and the Dream cross the Red Sea of apartheid and segregation but we have to cross the Jordan of unequal economic parity. We have to cross the Jordan of continued discrimination and mass incarceration. We got to keep fighting and substantiate that the dream was not for one generation.” Jamie Foxx says African American entertainers and entrepreneurs need to get involved as well, learning valuable lessons from the generation of performers who applied their celebrity and financial resources to support the 1963 March and Civil Rights Movement as whole. He shared how renowned entertainer-activist Harry Belafonte, a close friend and confidante of King, had routinely posted bail for the civil rights leader when he was arrested during demonstrations. And the legendary Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, produced an album with one of a King’s speech, “The Great March to Freedom, ” released on August 28, 1963. He says it’s clear the role today’s superstars must play. “The young folks [must] pick it up now,” Foxx told the crowd, “so that when we’re 87 years old, talking to the young folks, we can say it was me, Will Smith, Jay Z, Kanye, Alicia Keys, Kerry Washington, the list goes on and on.” The repayment of the debt is to continue the movement. President Obama, who keeps a bust of King and a framed program of the March in the Oval Office as reminders “of what’s at stake,” says we must ensure that the civil rights leaders of the March and their efforts do not die in vain. “To suggest, as some sometimes do that little has changed, that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years… But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.” It becomes the responsibility of the children and grandchildren of the Dream to make sure the bell of freedom rings loudly across America.

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March On Washington 50: We Must Ring The Bell Of Economic Freedom

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