Fifty years ago, on 28 August 1963, a tipping point in the United States history took place. A quarter of a million people took part in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Civil Rights movement had been gathering momentum for economic and social justice for black people which had barely improved in the 200 years since slavery had been abolished. Lynching of black people was still taking place, most notably that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was killed for allegedly having wolf-whistled at a white woman.
For three hours following the march from the Washington memorial to the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd — a fifth of whom were white — heard speeches and songs from such people as Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul, and Mary, Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Paul Newman,Rosa Parks and Sidney Poitier.
The climax came in a 16 minute speech given by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the undisputed leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Ironically, the transformative “dream speech” did not contain the passage that started with “I have a dream”. In the seventh paragraph, something extraordinary happened. King paused. In that brief silence, Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer and good friend of King’s, shouted “Tell ‘em about the ‘dream.'” King pushed the text of his prepared remarks to one side of the lectern. He changed his course in a heartbeat, abandoning whatever final version he’d prepared…he’d given himself over to the spirit of the moment and improvised much of the second half of the speech. The text of the speech is an inspiration to read today.
I remember, as clearly as yesterday, watching the television news that evening and the newscaster saying about a remarkable speech given in Washington that day and they played a long extract. I recall thinking at the time that this was a watershed for me and I date my total commitment to social justice from that Wednesday, 50 years ago, when I was a 15-year-old boy.
This was not something out of the blue — I remember being horrified by the scenes of American police turning water cannon and loosing dogs on the thousands of children who marched for justice in Birmingham, Alabama just three months earlier. My horror was later confirmed by a dreadful incident only two weeks after MLK’s speech when the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama and killed four teenage girls. This incident was immortalised in the Joan Baez song, “Birmingham Sunday”. Eight weeks later, the world forgot these incidents because on 22 November 1963 the focus of the world moved to the assassination of serial womaniser President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
So 50 years have passed and I ask myself how much has been achieved in that time. Some legislation was passed following the march which improved the rights of black people in the USA and now there is nominal equality on the statute books. Paradoxically, the opening lines of what is probably the United States’ most precious document, The Declaration of Independence, start with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Sadly, the reality today is that there is a huge section, notably the Republican Party, who do not believe that. Despite losing the election last year, Republicans are determined to slash programs that are viewed as giving “stuff” (in Mitt Romney’s word) to poorer Americans and especially minorities. They have sabotaged President Barack Obama’s health reform law and want to devastate funding for food stamps, transportation, education assistance and other domestic programs.
The election of a black president in 2008 was not beginning of a of a “post-racial” America but a signal for white right-wingers to rally their forces to “take back America.” The fact that the modern Republican Party has become almost exclusively white and the nation’s minorities have turned more and more to the Democratic Party has released the Republicans from any sense of racial tolerance.
The 1963 March was mirrored 16 years later by National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and its similar quest for social justice resulted in some equality legislation. However, the bitterness of the opposition to gay marriage in the USA, which far exceeds any opposition to that which we experienced in the UK, is breathtaking in its naked aggression towards gay and lesbian people.
When I made a comment on Facebook that I was planning this blog a couple of days ago, one of my socialist friends made a moving comment;
It’s awesome that you still have the dream, Paul when so many others got disillusioned and cynical
I reflected on what he said and realised that it was the injustices in society and the way that those on the margins of that society are treated that reinforce my commitment to socialism and to a just society. I won’t get disillusioned and cynical – I’ll just continue to get angry and to fight injustice.
I’ll close with the closing words of MLK’s speech:
I have a dream today!
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Preach it Martin, they weren’t listening the first time!