Tens of thousands of civil rights activists from around the world are expected to gather in the nation’s capital Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark March on Washington in 1963, but the event has recently taken on a much more urgent purpose.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key section of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. That was followed by the July 13 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford. Those two events have brought the issue of racial justice and equality once again to the front burner of U.S. political discourse.
Participants will still mark a half-century since civil rights patriarch the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
“But the Trayvon Martin verdict and the Supreme Court decision have changed what might have been a merely commemorative and congratulatory celebration,” says University of Miami law professor Charlton Copeland. “We need to have a serious discussion about what has changed and what hasn’t.”
Palm Beach County Urban League CEO and President Patrick J. Franklin, who plans to attend the march with his son, Miles, 13, agrees.
“Those who marched 50 years ago accomplished something very important,” Franklin says. “Two years later, the Voting Rights Act was passed. The march on Washington this time has to be about putting the Voting Rights Act back in play, and also addressing the ‘stand your ground’ laws all over the country.”
Florida’s stand your ground self-defense law was cited as a key influence on the jury in the Martin case. Many African-Americans charge that such laws are used disproportionately to free the killers of people of color.
But it’s the Voting Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of legislation in U.S. history, that has historical ties to the march.
The 1963 march drew 250,000 people, mostly African-Americans. The civil rights movement had been growing, spurred by the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. that ordered the desegregation of public schools. The movement was further propelled by the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott inspired by civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 1955. Freedom Riders, northern civil rights activists, journeyed into the Jim Crow South in numbers in the early 1960s, and in March 1963 King led the embattled and historic march from Selma to Montgomery.
Then came the March on Washington.
“It was extremely important as the culmination of a push that had been going on for many years,” says Zanita Fenton, also a University of Miami law professor. “I think people coming together and having that collective voice was of great significance to members of Congress. It said, ‘Yes, we are serious and we have needs that need to be met.’ Legislation often comes about that way, when people say they’ve had enough.”
The legislation that emerged was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It outlawed segregation in many walks of American life, including in employment and public accommodations, and strengthened laws against segregation in education. It was followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act, which greatly enhanced protections of minority voters. Title VIII of the updated 1968 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in housing.
The 40-plus years since that seminal period have been about seeing those laws enforced, says Fenton. She says great progress has been made “but we have not made it over the mountaintop.”
“We have a more integrated society and we do have people who are more successful than they could have been 50 years ago,” she says. “We even have an African-American president, but racism continues to create tremendous barriers.”
She and other civil rights activists say one of the key battles today is the protection of voting rights.
“Martin Luther King said the ballot was everything, we have to have the ballot,” says veteran Palm Beach County civil rights activist Samuel McDonald. The 85-year-old education pioneer says attempts to inhibit voting need to be fought.
“We are no longer having German shepherds sicced on us or fire hoses turned on us the way it happened against people in the 1960s,” Fenton says. “These days voter suppression is trickier.”
She and other civil rights activists speak of states that in recent years have tried to change voting laws in ways that they say would disproportionately affect the ability of minorities to vote. In Florida, HB 1355 reduced early voting periods and would make it harder for people who had changed counties to vote at the polls. The courts rolled back some of the 2011 bill’s provisions, but critics said the intent of reducing minority voting was clear.
“That’s why I’m very disappointed that the Supreme Court did what it did,” Fenton says, referring to the Voting Rights Act ruling in June. “It means we will only see more states trying to pass those kinds of laws.”
The court struck down Section 4 of the act, which identified certain states and counties where endemic racial discrimination occurred in voting and required them to get federal approval before changing any voting laws. Five counties in Florida were included. The court said higher minority voting rates in many of those jurisdictions made such scrutiny no longer valid, and said Congress had to come up with a new set of rules.
Lia Gaines, president of the West Palm Beach NAACP, says the ruling ignored “the current, more insidious forms of diluting the right to vote of African-Americans and other protected classes.”
“This is now accomplished through changes to redistricting maps, voter purging and other schemes, which have replaced the older more familiar barriers to the ballot box,” she says, adding that 50 years ago blacks in the South were forced to pay poll taxes to vote, a procedure made unconstitutional in 1964.
Gaines says Saturday’s anniversary march and rally must also bring attention to violations of basic human rights — including stand your ground laws and the high rate of imprisonment of African Americans.
“We have moved … to the new Jim Crow, which is the mass incarceration of African-Americans in prisons as a result of the so-called ‘war on drugs,’ ” she says.
Gaines agrees with concerns voiced this month by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, which he said disproportionately jailed minorities.
Copeland, the law professor, notes that, in making attempts to lower the incarceration rate, blacks are finding surprising allies: southern Republicans who are trying to reduce state corrections budgets to fit shrunken state revenues. He says that reminds him that 40 and 50 years ago blacks found allies in white businessmen who wanted the South to lose its reputation for racial intolerance and strife because it was bad for business.
“The question for this coming march is, ‘Where do we go from here?’ ” Copeland says. One answer will be any new coalitions that are formed to help the cause of civil rights. African-Americans have supported immigration legislation, and a collaboration with the country’s large Latino population is a possibility.
But, Copeland adds, southern Republicans trying to save money by reducing prison populations could also prove to be valuable allies in one aspect of the struggle. In stating that hope, he echoes the famous speech delivered 50 years ago by King.
“You can’t assume everyone will be dreaming the same dream, but you can hope to forge a coalition that will arrive at sensible policies for the future,” he says.
50 YEARS LATER: MLK’s ‘DREAM’ SPEECH
Saturday, tens of thousands of people are expected at the National Mall to commemorate the historic 1963 March on Washington which culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28.
Today: Voting rights- will march inspire changes?
Saturday: Locals remember 1963 March on Washington and discuss today’s commemoration
Sunday: Post Washington Correspondent Laura Green reports from the rally. Follow her on Twitter: @LGreenonthehill.
Civil rights advocates — led by the NAACP, Urban League and National Action Network — will hear various speakers at the Saturday march and rally in Washington.
On the Aug. 28 anniversary, numerous other commemorative marches and events are planned around the country — such as panel discussion on race and class sponsored by the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum and Auroras Voices in Delray Beach and a town hall meeting on education at the Urban League of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach.
Also on Aug. 28, President Barack Obama will speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
For more information on Washington, D.C. events: http://50thanniversarymarchonwashington.com/