The determined message of Martin Luther King’s famous speech will be as important as ever as people from across the country travel to Washington to protest racism.
August 22, 2013
FOUR-AND-a-half years ago, an enormous crowd packed into the Capitol mall in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. The first African American president took the oath of office in front of a Capitol building built by slaves.
Among the crowd on that January day, there was a sense of bearing witness to progress—not only because of the historical significance of the first Black president in a country founded on slavery, but also the seeming sea change in contemporary politics after eight long years of George W. Bush and the Republicans in power.
This weekend, another crowd—smaller, but likewise dominated by African Americans—will gather on another part of the mall. They will be commemorating a different historical moment: the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
But they will also be protesting—expressing their anger at the continuing grip of racism in so many forms, even as an African American sits in the Oval Office.
By virtually every measure, the conditions and quality of life for the majority of African Americas have declined during the Obama years. More than other parts of the population, Black America has borne the brunt of the economic and social crisis of the Great Recession years. The March on Washington is an opportunity to focus a spotlight on this reality, while the cameras of the media are rolling—and on the need to do something about it with, as King said 50 years ago, “the fierce urgency of now.”
Not only is racism still with us—despite the claims that we are, since Obama’s election, living in a “post-racial society”—but the first African American president has done nothing about the crisis of Black America. On the contrary, for the last five years, Obama and his administration have explicitly avoided being identified with “racial issues.”
This posture changed somewhat over the summer. Last month, Obama made one of the only public statements of his presidency about racial profiling and racism in the U.S. justice system—but only because of the wave of outrage after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the murderer of Trayvon Martin. Likewise, Attorney General Eric Holder promised changes in the Justice Department’s policies on drug prosecutions and mandatory minimum sentencing—after years of upholding the federal injustice system.
Obama and his administration will get credit they don’t deserve for these statements and promises—among liberal leaders of mainstream civil rights organizations and unions who will speak at the March, and also among the crowd in general. Those committed to building the antiracist struggle should take the opportunity this weekend to talk about the real record—and about why liberal leaders who apologize for that record, rather than challenge it, are making the situation worse.
Still, even if Obama and Holder are taken completely at their word, it won’t be news to anyone at the March that much, much more needs to be done—and that the initiative for doing it is going to have to come from outside the Washington political system, as it did after the Zimmerman verdict.
That’s a sentiment to build on—with the aim of using this national mobilization against racism to advance local struggles around a wide range of questions that marchers will return to on August 25.