By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Today marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and area thought leaders weigh-in on the pace of the progress toward the “dream” since that day.
The 1963 march March on Washington had a clear purpose laid out in a 10-point plan that focused on desegregating schools, better jobs and wages, eliminating discrimination, and voting.
Events leading up to the march, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrest and letter from Birmingham Jail and the death of Medgar Evers, helped make the need for civil rights real in the eyes of many who had once seemed disconnected from the problem. The events that followed, like the murder of four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, created a powder keg that forced legislators to act.
“After that march, things happened, and there was change,” says Nolan Atkinson, a Philadelphia attorney with Duane Morris. Atkinson was just 20 years old when he traveled from Boston to attend the March on Washington in 1963.
“Segregated America became something other than segregated America,” says Atkinson, who recently told his story at the Comcast Center’s launch of HisDreamOurStories.com, a multimedia site that tells the stories of that historic day.
“You could sit down in a Woolworth 5 and dime and have a hotdog,” he says. “That is what the march did.”
Fast forward 50 years:
“Many of the laws that passed since 1963 have been eroded,” says Drick Boyd, professor of urban studies at Eastern University. Boyd notes that voting rights, public education, economic equality and other legislation has regressed in many ways. He says part of the problem is that issues and restricted rights vary by state.
“Issues like gun laws, like education are legislated at the state level,” says Boyd. “We have really given away the decision-making power to the states. This makes creating a national agenda extremely difficult.”
This difficulty was apparent in Saturday’s National Action to Realize the Dream Rally and March on Washington last Saturday. The event drew tens of thousands from all over the country, as well as countless leaders in civil rights. The only problem: the purpose and goals of the march seemed scattered.
“We are not gathering around a central agenda for jobs, which should have been the focus of the March on Saturday,” says Rev. Kevin Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church. He recently wrote an op-ed criticizing the lack of focus in the modern movement, calling the golden cerebration “hollow.”
“The unemployment rate is nearly 13 percent, 3 points higher than it was in 1963,” he says, “instead of focusing on adding more jobs, you see jobs going overseas. We need to be holding not only the president, but also the corporate leaders accountable. It’s time for us to take care of home.”
Saturday’s speeches did touch on the need for jobs, but there was also much discussion about abolishing stand your ground laws, urban violence, eroding public education, immigration reform, gay rights, racial profiling, affordable college education, equal pay for women and the list goes on.
“I think civil rights leaders have fallen for the okie-doke,” says Johnson, “poverty is on the rise in America. That should be the focus. The haves are getting more and the have-nots are left out in the cold.”
Johnson says another missing component in Saturday’s march was a clear call to action. He says the March on Washington took decades to bring to fruition, but the purpose and the vision was clear and so change happened. Johnson says Saturday’s march fails to deliver that clear message.
“The key question is what can we do,” says Todd Bernstein, founder of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service. “Every single American can become involved and lobby their legislators for effective legislation. Every single American can do something to help the progress toward the dream.”
Even though Saturday did not present a clear vision for the future, what is clear is that moving civil rights forward will require grassroots efforts and leaders who can articulate a clear agenda. More work needs to be done and it requires people to do it.