Today’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is an event worth commemorating for more than Martin Luther King Jr.’s delivery of one of the most powerful speeches in American history.
The event endures as a testament to the courage and dedication of all who participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
They risked life and limb in pursuit of freedom.
And they were triumphant to a remarkable degree.
Fifty years ago, blacks were commonly denied the right to vote. Discrimination was pervasive, affecting virtually every aspect of daily life: housing, jobs, education, medical care.
Blacks were routinely treated as second-class — and worse — citizens in many areas of the South. They weren’t welcome in many restaurants; they had to eat on picnic tables out back. Segregated seating was prevalent in movie theaters. And “whites-only” bathrooms and water fountains were the norm.
This was the United States, and it was a shameful time.
But since then, civil rights laws and changing attitudes have dramatically altered American society and opened up the personal freedoms and economic opportunities denied the marchers who gathered around the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel on Saturday pointed out some impressive accomplishments:
In 1966, 42 percent of American blacks lived in poverty; by 2011, 28 percent did.
Wessel reports, “The income of the median black family, the one in the middle of the statistical middle, is 80 percent higher, adjusted for inflation, than a comparable family in 1963 ...”
The nation has by no means resolved all racial issues, as the recent divergent views of the Trayvon Martin case demonstrated. And even though there is far more economic opportunity today for African-Americans, many still face challenges.
The net worth of whites is six times that of blacks. Black families have eroded, with 73 percent of black children now born out of wedlock.
Crime remains a disproportionate threat. The Justice Department found that from 1980-2008, blacks were six times more likely than whites to be victims of gun violence.
Still, for all that, the Civil Rights Movement did succeed in dismantling much of the institutional racism that characterized much of the nation in 1963.
Much work remains to be done to fulfill King’s dream. But in confronting that task, all Americans should take inspiration from the March on Washington’s example of nonviolence, courage and resolve.