Yesterday, I marched with Pax Christi Metro DC – Baltimore to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address. It was inspiring to be there, and I was keenly aware of the debt of gratitude we owe to all of the unsung heroes and heroines of the African American civil rights movement.
But as we marched I heard also the challenge to rededicate ourselves – black and white, young and old, citizen and undocumented – to the “unfinished business” of the civil rights movement, the promise still to be redeemed, of the dream of a “beloved community” in which “the giant triplets” of racism, poverty, and war are finally defeated.
It was inspiring to be there, in a sea of faces of all races, across many generations, those who had marched 50 years ago and those who were not even born then. The same hopes as 50 years ago, and tragically the same challenges, were expressed in the many signs: “Protect Voting Rights,” “End Racial Profiling,” “Fund Jobs, Not War,” “Redeem the Dream.” For the first time women addressed the crowds from the speaker’s platform, as did Latinos who added: “Dr. King’s dream is also our own. If we do not rise together we will fall together.”
Several veteran African American activists called for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. Over the past year “the dreamers,” young Latino students who crossed the border with their undocumented parents are claiming their “right to dream” and have inspired the nation with the same creativity and courage and non-violent actions as African American students from a generation ago with the sit-ins across the country.
Especially moving were the voices of those who spoke 50 years ago, among them Rep. John Lewis, the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and 23 years old at the time, who made the direct link between the sacrifices of the past and the recent Supreme Court decision to roll back the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
“We cannot go back. We cannot wait. We want jobs and freedom.” Words identical to what he said 50 years ago. “We are one people, one family, one house. We cannot give up, give out, give in. Fifty years ago I gave blood on the bridge in Selma, Alabama for the right to vote. I am not going to let the Supreme Court turn that around.” And he finished with this challenge: “I got arrested forty times in the 1960s, was beaten bloody and unconscious. But I’m not tired, I’m not weary.”
Martin Luther King III, Dr. King’s son, also received a warm welcome from the marchers: “Fifty years ago the Spirit of the Lord spoke through Martin Luther King Jr. to call on a nation to repent from the sin of racism. Today I stand in my father’s footsteps. Like you, I continue to feel his presence, and hear his voice. Our task is still not done, the journey is not over. My father spoke about a day in which we would be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin. But today, the color of one’s skin is a license to profile, arrest, and murder.”
Racial profiling, mass incarceration, and gun violence have resulted in the assault, imprisonment and deaths of thousands of black youth each year. One of the most moving moments of the march was the joint appearance on stage of the family of Emmett Till – a young black teenager from Chicago who was lynched in Alabama in 1955, and the parents of Trayvon Martin – a black youth shot dead in Florida a few months ago by a white man who was later exonerated by a jury. Equal justice under the law is still an unfilled promise in America for people of color.
Fifty years later, much of the agenda of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is still “unfinished business.” The list is long, and it begins with overturning the Supreme Court decision to reverse key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, for which so much sacrifice and blood was shed. Speaker after speaker decried the institutional racism that excludes millions of African Americans from access to quality education, health care or housing. Black unemployment for youth is 25% in many urban areas, including parts of Washington DC, and 38% of African American children still live in poverty.
These are the faces of institutional racism today, the faces of poverty, the face of “institutional violence.” Fifty years after the March on Washington, there are still “two Americas,” and a system of economic apartheid that rivals the Jim Crow system of “separate but equal.” Add to this a military budget and global war on terror that is addicting our nation to violence and it is clear that the “giant triplets” of racism, poverty, and militarism are very much with us today.
It was truly a privilege to be present in the march this year, and in the presence of such a “cloud of witnesses” from the African American community, reminding all of us that there are still two Americas today – one black and one white, one poor and one rich, one that consumes enormous resources for war and one that cries out for dignity and life.
Pax Christi USA strives to create a world that reflects the Peace of Christ by exploring, articulating, and witnessing to the call of Christian nonviolence. This work begins in personal life and extends to communities of reflection and action to transform structures of society. Pax Christi USA rejects war, preparations for war, and every form of violence and domination. It advocates primacy of conscience, economic and social justice, and respect for creation.
The March on Washington – and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy are reminders to all of us – in Pax Christi and in the Catholic Church – of the unfinished work we have to do to end the violence of racism, the violence of poverty, and the violence of war, wherever they occur. We cannot neglect one of those three evils, and hope to accomplish either of the other two. That was the challenge that Dr. King put before us, and the invitation to be part of building the “beloved community.” So on this day I am grateful to you, to your people, for your sacrifice and witness. May we all be worthy of the promise, and work tirelessly for an end to racism, poverty and war.