Looking back 40 years, the America that gave rise to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington seems much more innocent than our country today.
Division over the Vietnam War had not yet appeared. Political assassinations only took place in other countries. The youthful enthusiasm of President John F. Kennedy energized the nation. Young African-Americans — building on the success of King’s 1956 Montgomery bus boycott — staged sit-ins and freedom rides to challenge the Jim Crow laws of racial segregation.
“Ask not what your country can do for you …”
The civil rights gains of the 1960s resulted from direct action — protest marches, sit-ins, bravery and personal risk. Americans from every walk of life, from every race and every creed, took part in these actions — actions that truly changed American history.
The March on Washington was seen at the time as just one more example of how direct action produced change — shortly after the march, Kennedy committed to make the Voting Rights Act a priority. Later, in 1964, Congress passed the act, and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. Throughout the South, at lunch counters, in front of courthouses, on trains and on buses, many Americans came together and directly confronted racism, discrimination and injustice.
Today, legal segregation no longer exists — but other threats have emerged. Nationwide, the so-called Patriot Act and the proposed Patriot Act II threaten basic civil liberties and civil rights. Our government now has the ability to spy on anyone it merely suspects of having terrorist ties — with wiretaps, searches of library records and other surveillance. The FBI can now seize the records of any entity, including libraries and bookstores. And they can do this without the requirement that they have concrete evidence the person whose records they seek is a member of a terrorist group or otherwise involved in terrorism.
These new powers are fraught with the potential for discrimination and abuse. In fact, the FBI has a history of abusing its power: monitoring and infiltrating civil rights organizations including bugs on and threatening calls to King himself.
Massive corporate media mergers threaten to limit the information that most Americans read, hear and see every day. These mega- media conglomerates — operating without competition and accountability — threaten the very freedom of the press.
In California, Proposition 54 threatens to eliminate the collection of valuable racial data — data the medical community needs to make sure that the health needs of different minority groups are being met, data that communities of color need to monitor discrimination in housing, employment and education.
And at our southern border, racial profiling and harassment is an everyday occurrence.
“We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Today, in 2003, we have no shortage of challenges. But, unlike the 1960s, the population — especially young people — seems disinterested and disengaged. Can anyone visualize another March on Washington in 2003?
Yet, such a demonstration is urgently needed.
Many of the gains that have been made since 1963 are being rolled back — not only civil rights, but also labor rights, environmental protections, educational opportunity and access to health care.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We’ve come a long way — but we’ve got a long way to go!” Forty years later, we may have an even longer way to go than even King contemplated.
Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), who took part in the civil rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s, served two months in the Mississippi State Penitentiary as a result of his participation in the 1961 Freedom Rides.