Marching on Washington and Fighting for Racial Equality: from 1963 to 2020

Note: This editorial was first published on September 1, 2020 on the Channel 27 News & Entertainment, Grant County’s website.

September 1, 2020

by Chaylee N. Brock

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. Approximately 250,000 people descended upon Washington, D.C. on that day to listen to Dr. King and many other Civil Rights advocates, including the late John Lewis, speak to their dreams of and work towards a fairer, more just, more inclusive United States.

On August 28, 2020, 57 years after Dr. King gave his famous speech, thousands more gathered in Washington, D.C. yet again, protesting and calling for a lot of the same things Civil Rights advocates were marching for in 1963.

Although we uplift Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and those who fought and marched alongside him in the 1960’s, it seems that we, as Americans, have failed to make Dr. King’s dream a reality. Although we look to Dr. King’s “I have a dream speech” as a turning point in American history, what has actually changed for people of color in the United States over the last 57 years?

Shortened version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, March on Washington, August 28, 1963

The original March on Washington in 1963, also known as March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was a protest calling for “fair treatment and equal opportunity for black Americans,” as well as a call for Congress to finally pass the Civil Rights Act into law.

Here are some of the things protesters were demanding during the March in 1963:

  • A comprehensive Civil Rights law
  • Racial equality
  • Desegregation of public spaces around the country
  • Desegregation of public schools
  • An end to racially-motivated violence
  • An end to police attacking protesters and activists
  • The end of Jim Crow laws, mostly enforced in the south
  • The ability for all black people to vote, without obstacles meant to stop them
  • A federal works program “to train and place unemployed workers”
  • For workplace and hiring discrimination to be abolished
Video of the Children’s March and the overall violence endured by black Americans who dared to protest in the south, provided by Miranda Jessop on YouTube

Following the 1963 March on Washington, King and other activists met with President John F. Kennedy to discuss the need to pass a comprehensive Civil Rights Act, to right so many of the wrongs black people in America had faced for centuries.

In some ways, one could argue that the March on Washington of 1963 was successful, because the pressure it put on politicians did lead to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (signed by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson), which “guaranteed equal employment for all, limited the use of voter literacy tests and allowed federal authorities to ensure public facilities were integrated.” Johnson also signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965 and the Fair Housing Act into law in 1968.

All in all, the Civil Rights Movement and those who showed their support for it during the March on Washington created the change that moved America one step closer to equality for all of its citizens. We recognize the 1960’s as a time of great change and great victory for our black brothers and sisters who spent decades fighting, protesting, rebelling, and even being beaten (or worse, lynched) by those who opposed them, all in order to be treated fairly by the country they called home.

While we’re right to recognize the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders as creators of change in America, we also have to recognize that the laws passed in the 1960’s were not a cure for racism and discrimination. Laws can put an end to the government’s practices of racial discrimination, but, unfortunately, they can’t obliterate racist ideologies and hatred.

“A long history of violence, civil unrest against people of color in the US | America In Pain” from ABC News

Fifty-seven years after the original March on Washington, another March on Washington took place, on August 28, 2020, and protesters were demanding some of the very same changes that were being championed in 1963.

Here are the top demands being made at the March in 2020:

  • An end to police brutality
  • An end to racially-motivated violence (including by police)
  • An end to the senseless murders of black Americans, mostly black men
  • A commitment from Congress to reinstate and secure the Voting Rights Act, which has been weakened by the Supreme Court
  • An end to voter suppression tactics being used around the country
  • Police reform, including the movement to “defund the police” (to redistribute funding for police departments)
  • Criminal justice reform

Yolanda Renee King, the 12-year-old granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at the rally and so eloquently described the need for and goals of the 2020 March on Washington.

“We have mastered the selfie and TikTok. Now, we must master ourselves. Less than a year before he was assassinated, my grandfather predicted this very moment. He said that we were moving into a new phase of the struggle. The first phase is civil rights. The next phase is genuine equality. Genuine equality is why we are here today and why people are coming together from all over the world.”

Yolanda Renee King, the granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at the 2020 March on Washington, in the very same spot her grandfather gave his most famous speech (“I Have A Dream”) fifty-seven years ago to the day.

In the year 2020, we have seen black person after black person being brutally attacked, lynched, murdered, by both civilians and even the very law enforcement officers who swore an oath to protect all of the citizens within their jurisdiction. There’s a valid argument to be had as to whether or not these racially-motivated attacks are increasing in frequency, or if we’re only seeing them more clearly and frequently due to the use of smart phones to record such incidents. Personally, I would say it’s a combination of both.

Over the last decade or so, it seems almost every American has gotten their hands on a new smart phone, which all have video recording capabilities, but according to a report from the FBI in late 2019, hate crimes across the country have now reached a 16-year high, with a surge in physical assaults. This rise in racially-motivated assaults is perhaps anything but surprising, and the reason why was summarized well in a PBS article by Priyanka Boghani.

A part of the story of America’s political journey from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump was the rise of racial anger — as seen in the crude, racist stereotypes of Obama that showed up on signs at Tea Party rallies, and in the mainstreaming of the conspiracy that the country’s first African American president was not born in the United States.

We’ve also seen white supremacist and white nationalist groups re-emerge over the last few years, including right here in Marion, Indiana and our surrounding counties. These groups have yet again started to act on their hatred, which was made obvious by the rally in Charlottesville that turned deadly, the mass murder committed by Dylan Roof in South Carolina, and just in the last week, the shooting of protesters by Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin, as well as the caravan of Trump supporters who threatened and intimidated protesters in Oregon.

Given that racism continues to run rampant in America, it’s to be expected that those ideologies find their ways into police departments across the country, especially given the 400-year history of racial bias within the law enforcement system.

In May of 2020, a black man named George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota by police officers who knelt on Floyd’s body for almost nine whole minutes, with one of the officer’s knees on his neck, restricting his airways, and the whole thing was captured on cell phone video and immediately shared with the world. Viewers of the video were rightfully enraged, despite the fact that Floyd’s death was just one more murder of a black man at the hands of police, which we have been witnessing in America on a regular basis for years now. The death of Floyd sparked protests in cities all throughout the United States.

The 2020 March on Washington came into existence following the murder of George Floyd, thanks to Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, and in reference to Floyd, the march was alternatively called the ‘Get Off Our Necks’ Commitment March.

US police shoot and kill Black people at twice the rate of whites: Report, Al Jazeera English

Following a handful of murders of black men in 2013 and 2014, a group known as Black Lives Matter was created, and this same group has been involved in protests around the country ever since, including the massive number of protests that were sparked following the public death of George Floyd. Their message simply tells people all around the world that “black lives matter,” but beneath that, the group has also been fighting for police reform, an end to racially-motivated violence and murder, and, most recently, a movement to “defund the police.” Members and supporters of Black Lives Matter were front and center at the 2020 March on Washington.

Family members of the black Americans recently killed, both by police and by civilians, spoke at the March, and all of their speeches were powerful displays of the damage racism causes to families and communities.

Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black kid who was shot and killed in 2012
The family of Jacob Blake, a black man shot and paralyzed by police officers in Wisconsin in August of 2020
The family of George Floyd, a black man killed by police in Minnesota in May of 2020
Reverend Al Sharpton, activist and founder of the National Action Network

In his speech, Reverend Sharpton discussed the continuing fight for the ability for black Americans to vote. While the Voting Rights Act was passed and signed into law during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1965, the law has since been diminished significantly by the United States Supreme Court, and politicians and election officials have found ways to implement voter suppression tactics that tend to mostly impact Americans of color and Americans living in poverty.

In 2013, Shelby County, Alabama brought a lawsuit against then Attorney General Eric Holder, over provisions listed in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The result of this case was that “a 5-4 majority mothballed the law’s Section 5, which required states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get certification in advance, or ‘pre-clearance,’ that any election change they wanted to make would not be discriminatory,” which means that protections that once insured election and voting changes “were transparent, vetted, and fair to all voters regardless of race” no longer exist.

The Brennan Center contributes the outcome of that 2013 Supreme Court case to many instances of voter suppression tactics we’ve seen in recent years, including an instance during the 2020 primary elections where “voters — including many voters of color — faced faulty voting machines, long lines, and extended wait times to cast their ballots in Georgia, one of the states previously subject to pre-clearance requirement.”

The ACLU asserts that “[c]ertain communities are particularly susceptible to suppression and in some cases, outright targeted — people of color, students, the elderly, and people with disabilities.” They also provide a list of several methods of modern voter suppression, which include:

  • Voter ID Laws
  • Voter Registration Restrictions
  • Voter Purges
  • Felony Disenfranchisement
  • Gerrymandering

We’ve also seen the closure of many voting locations, restrictions on the use of absentee/mail-in ballots, and the refusal to make voting locations accessible to voters with disabilities. That says nothing, of course, of the way President Donald Trump has been railing against mail-in voting (yet approving of “absentee voting”), spreading false narratives about the risk of voter fraud, all while we live through a worldwide pandemic that has hit America particularly hard and could make going to the polls in person life-threatening. Trump has also implemented a new Postmaster General just months before the election, and the changes that have since been made to the USPS threaten the ability of voters to get their mail-in ballots submitted in time. Trump himself even admitted that his recent moves regarding the USPS, including starving it of much-needed funding, were meant to negatively impact mail-in voting.

It’s easy to see why many voters in America would feel that casting their vote is too complicated or that their vote really doesn’t matter. While some suppression tactics attack the actual ability to vote in a safe, convenient way, other tactics have been deployed to mentally dissuade voters from participating. The people deploying these tactics know exactly what they’re doing, and they have in mind the communities they need to target. It’s been historically true that Americans of color, poor Americans, and disabled Americans tend to vote Democratic, so it’s been mostly Republicans that have placed barriers in their paths to voting, or convinced them that voting isn’t worth it, all in an attempt to win and maintain power.

“The ongoing fight to overcome voter suppression,” ABC News

I was in my first semester of college in 2008 when Barack Obama won the election for President. I remember sitting in my college apartment, my tiny television above my desk showing President Obama’s acceptance speech, and tears streaming down my face. But beneath those tears, I couldn’t stop smiling. I remember telling myself what an amazing, historic moment I was witnessing, and my heart was full of joy and hope. Had we finally gotten to a place in American where a black man could really be president? Were we finally living in (what many pundits called) a “post-racial” nation?

I know many of us had those same thoughts and hopes, because for a brief moment, it really did seem like we had made it — like the decades of blood that was shed by black Americans to achieve racial equality had finally paid off. It felt like maybe we could finally leave racism and discrimination in the past and move forward into a more inclusive, kind, loving America.

We were wrong.

Maybe that’s why seeing a man who used countless racist dog whistles in his campaign get elected as Barack Obama’s successor stung and hurt so deeply. Maybe that’s why we stared in disbelief as we watched white supremacists gain prominence once more and even walk the halls of the White House and Capital Building. Maybe that’s why we find ourselves glued to our screens, waiting for and dreading the next racially-motivated attacks to be caught on film somewhere in America.

The last eight years or so have been dark, but the past three ears have been the darkest I’ve ever seen. So, to now see people marching and protesting in the streets, and to see the beautiful congregation of the American people on the National Mall last week, demanding to be heard… it gives me hope. It’s a little bit of light in a whole lot of darkness.

I am white, but it breaks my heart and hurts my soul to see the hatred and the ugliness happening all around us, especially to our black brothers and sisters. I am white, but I will gladly take up this cause as if it were my own, because, in a way, it is my own.

“None of us are free until all of us are free.”

I’m also proud to contribute to a news organization created and led by Richarh Tyson, a black man. I’m proud to call him my friend. And I was extremely proud of Richarh for seizing the opportunity to attend the 2020 March on Washington in person and for the work he did while there.

Following the march, Richarh said, “[i]t was a beautiful experience to see such a diverse group of people campaigning for change.” He also published many of the photos he took that day, and to see the “diverse group of people” he referenced all in one place, all demanding the same change, gave me goosebumps.

Despite everything we had hoped for, the election of Barack Obama did not bring us into the post-racial nation America has always been striving to become. Dr. King didn’t get us there, either.

No, the only way we will drag this country (kicking and screaming, if need be) to a place of true equality is if Americans of all colors, religions, abilities, sexual orientations, genders, wealth come together and fight as one. That’s what we see in the photos taken by Richarh last week, and that’s what lets me continue to cling to the hope for a better future.

It’s important for us to understand the battles that were fought and the victories that were won before us. It’s equally important for us to pay attention and clearly see the injustices and inequality that still exist around us. That’s how we carry the baton and possibly even pass it on to the next generation to carry through the battles of their time.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. We have to remember that, like Dr. King once said, “the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

We also have to remember what Dr. King’s granddaughter, Yolanda, said in Washington: “My generation has already taken to the streets – peacefully and with masks and social distancing – to protest racism. And I want to ask the young people here to join me in pledging that we have only just begun to fight – and that we will be the generation that moves from me to we.”

Hopefully there won’t be need for another March on Washington fifty years from now, but if there is, lets make sure we set a good example for that future generation and teach them how to drag America yet one more step towards justice.