By Stacy M. Brown and Hamil R. Harris
Just over six decades later, the majority of Americans have little trouble reciting at least a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
However, as iconic and memorable as King’s words remain, some have overlooked or forgotten the importance of the march during which he shared his prophetic vision on Aug. 28, 1963.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom highlighted a 10.9% Black unemployment rate, poor job mobility, rampant racism in the South and severe economic and political injustice.
More than 200,000 arrived at the National Mall in Washington for the march, which organizers hoped would also bring attention to other injustices like unfair housing for African Americans.
“[Black Americans] must march from the rat-infested, over-crowded ghettos to decent, wholesome, unrestricted residential areas disbursed throughout our cities,” Whitney M. Young, Jr., then-executive director of the National Urban League, stated during the march. “They must march from the play areas in crowded and unsafe streets to the newly-opened areas in the parks and recreational centers.”
Speakers at the March addressed the need for Black children to have greater access to adequate and integrated education.
“We will not stop our marching feet until our kids . . . can study a wide range without being cramped in Jim Crow schools,” vowed James Farmer, then-national director of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Added Young: “We must march from the congested ill-equipped schools, which breed dropouts and which smother motivation to the well-equipped integrated facilities throughout the cities.”
In an overview of the march by the Economic Policy Institute (ECI), Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, pointed out that despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, “for nine years, our parents and their children have been met with either a flat refusal or a token action in school desegregation. Every added year of such treatment is a leg iron upon our men and women.”
More than a generation has since been added to the delay Wilkins decried.
The ECI noted that six decades after the Brown decision and more than a half-century after the “Little Rock Nine” were escorted by federal troops into Little Rock Central High School, nearly three-fourths (74.1%) of Black students still attend segregated schools, defined as majority nonwhite.
According to the ECI, this is almost the same share as in the late 1960s, when 76.6% of Black children attended majority-Black schools.
With bipartisanship and democracy falling further into America’s rearview mirror, many gains from the march have dissipated.
For example, the most recent jobs report showed that the overall unemployment rate dropped to 3.5% but rose to 6% for Black workers.
Clergy Determined to Replenish Troops and Accomplish March’s Goals
As a throng of Americans, estimated at more 200,000 activists and protesters gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King asserted that “America has defaulted on [its] promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned . . . America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
And while the Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington in 2020 drew just a fraction of the numbers from 1963, a new generation of church leaders continue to carry on King’s goals with new programs amidst unprecedented obstacles.
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest: “I think the church as we know it is trying to recruit after COVID. Our activism has shifted because of this pandemic because those of us on the social justice side, advocated for science and to keep people safe. But the white, right evangelical movement denounced science at the expense of their members. As a result, they kept their political apparatus alive.”
The Rev. Tony Lee, pastor, Community of Hope AME Church in Temple Hills: “We don’t have the luxury of stopping in terms of protest because there’s too much at stake. We must be vigilant during these times on both a national and local level. For example, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is spearheading a hope and action plan to deal with gun violence. We have to deal with the issues that affect our people in the county.”
Before the Rev. Deborah K. Webb became the first female bishop in the Temple of Praise International Fellowship of Churches, Inc., she led efforts to assist youth and families facing various forms of trauma, particularly violence, in Southeast: “We have to show love and kindness to create programs to bring people back to God and to embrace more therapeutic ways to affect change in the African-American community.”
The Rev. Anika Wilson Brown, pastor, Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast: “There’s a certain sense of numbness and hopes and expectations are very low. The traditional church has not done a good job in helping its members deal with the challenges of real life. Everybody has different resources so we must learn how to partner together. The way to kill a giant is to use our collective forms of expertise – it takes everyone. We need therapy, we need the church and we need activism.”
The Rev. Donald Robinson, associate minister, First Baptist Church on Randolph Street in Northwest: “The world has changed as we knew it. Everything has been shaken up. Many ministers are struggling to get their members to come back as COVID created options once unheard of. At one time, there was no other way to worship but in person. And while we have never faced a crisis like this, we cannot forget that people are still becoming ill and dying.”