Forward and Lateral Movement
ABOVE PHOTO: In this combination of Associated Press file photos, at top, a group of demonstrators pose for a photo at the Lincoln Memorial in during the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington; and at bottom, the Rev. Al Sharpton, center, arm-in-arm with Congressman John Lewis, lining up with Martin Luther King III, third from right, Andrea King, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, second from left, after the rally at the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013. From the steps where King stood, orators spoke Saturday of promises yet unfulfilled in areas like voting rights, gun violence, economic inequality and equal protection under the law.
By Denise Clay
America is a nation that’s real big on celebrating its history.
As a resident of our nation’s first capital here in Philadelphia, I see that firsthand every day. From the markers that dot our streets to the Independence Mall area filed with buildings where our nation’s first lawmakers went to ply their craft, history surrounds me on all sides whether I like it or not.
But the problem I have with many of the celebrations of our nation’s history is that they don’t always tell the entire story of how we got from Point A, the time the event being celebrated, to Point B, the time when we commemorate it. In the name of making it palatable to everyone, we tend to leave a few things out.
No celebration of history is exempt from this, not even the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.
In the lead up to the two (!) commemorations of the 50th Anniversary of the March held last Saturday and on Wednesday, there was a lot of that. There was a lot of emphasis on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which wasn’t bad in a way because that speech was a big part of the march.
But let’s be honest here. While the “dream” got mentioned a lot, we have to be honest enough to admit that while much has changed since 1963, much hasn’t.
Let’s start with the good news. Lynchings aren’t common anymore. You can work anywhere you want to and make a decent wage. Schools are open to everyone. There are no “white” and “colored” water fountains. If you want to grab a bite at XIX or any other high-end restaurant here in Philly, you can do it… provided you have the cash or it’s Center City Restaurant Week.
You can register and vote if you want to, and there’s no literacy test needed…something evidenced by the number of absolute knuckleheads currently residing in our government.
Speaking of the government, the current First Family is Black. My guess is that in 1963 no one saw that happening.
But while much has changed, much has stayed the same. When I was at the commemoration on Saturday, signs carried by the folks who marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument talked about a lot of the same things that folks were struggling against in 1963.
For example, while you can register to vote, actually voting has become a little more problematic because the Voting Rights Act has been, for all intents and purposes, gutted by the Supreme Court via the Shelby County decision. There are no literacy tests, but you have to have an ID in some places…and if it’s a college ID, forget it.
Technically, you can get a good education anywhere. But try telling that to parents in places like Detroit, Philadelphia and other major American cities where cuts in education funding are such that the only choices are select magnet schools that your child must test in to and charter schools that are a mixed bag at best.
Oh, and by the way, the money that’s being cut from your child’s school district is being funneled into the prison system, which leads into the only direct correlation in research… the correlation between the number of Black boys failing fourth grade and the number of prison beds you’ll need.
The minimum wage is under attack, the divide between the haves and have-nots is as wide as the Grand Canyon, and if you’re a union member, you’re the problem, at least to some.
And while it’s true that there haven’t been a whole lot of lynchings over the last 50 years, the value of African American life is still next to non-existent. Want proof? Two words: Trayvon Martin.
My last car was a 1999 Honda Civic. I really liked that car because it was a great reporter’s car…you really had to work hard to get it off the road for repairs.
But it died on me in 2009 because while I loved it, I didn’t always take care of it. I didn’t always change the oil, or rotate the tires, or give it a tune-up like I should have because it sometimes got a little expensive.
America, particularly the part that deals with Civil Rights and equality for all, is a bit like my Honda. In 1963, folks went to Washington and started negotiating to make America more equal and came back with some really good things like the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.
But a lot of us thought that because it was the law, and because we were people of good will, that we didn’t need to stay on top of things. We forgot that the people who didn’t want us to have these rights had kids just as we did…and guess what they taught them?
So now we sit 50 years later and find ourselves asking if it was all worth it.
It was, of course. Freedom is always worth it.
But like that car, it needs maintenance. It needs for all of us to become better mechanics. We need to stay on top of Congress until it puts together a new Voting Rights act. We need to make sure that the money spent on prisons isn’t being taken away from schools.
We need to make sure that standing your ground is something that you do when you’re arguing your convictions, not brandishing a gun.
In other words, we need to make it so we’re not asking ourselves the same questions 50 years from now.