United States

It is the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream".

August 28 marked the 60th anniversary of the event that marked one of the most important moments in the struggle for civil rights in the United States: "The March for Jobs and Freedom".

Gonzalo Meza-August 31, 2023-Reading time: 5 minutes
Washington marches

The 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom (OSV News photo / courtesy Library of Congress)

August 28 marked the 60th anniversary of the landmark event that marked one of the most important moments in the struggle for civil rights in the United States in Washington D.C.The March for Jobs and Freedom. On that occasion, 250,000 people marched from the George Washington Monument to the esplanade of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall to protest against racial discrimination and to support what was then only a civil rights bill to be passed in the U.S. Congress. 

That August 28, 1963 call was launched by the group known as the "Big Six" of the U.S. civil rights movement: James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Participants in the march demanded equality before the law for all: whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, without distinction. This event was one of the cornerstones that shaped the struggle for civil rights in America. A battle that had already begun in the 1950s, but which would come to fruition with a series of key events. First, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the historic verdict known as "Brown v. Board of Education" in 1954. 

The Court ruled that laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional, even when such institutions were governed under the principle of "segregated but equal." This verdict thus overruled the 1896 "Plessy v. Ferguson" decision declaring racial segregation to be constitutional. The Brown v. Board of Education case began when in 1951 a public school in Topeka, Kansas, refused to enroll the daughter of an African-American named Oliver Brown in school. His family and twelve others filed suit in Kansas District Court. The ruling was negative and so Brown, along with Thurgood Marshall appealed the ruling by introducing it to the Supreme Court. Marshall would later become one of the greatest American jurists and the first African-American to be elected to the Supreme Court.

The bus boycott

Another event that would mark the history of the struggle for civil rights was the so-called "Montgomery Bus Boycott", Alabama, initiated by Rosa Parks, an American woman who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public transportation bus to a white person. Until the early 1950s, African Americans were only allowed to sit in the back of the bus. She was jailed and fined for this behavior. This prompted a boycott of Montgomery's public buses, a protest led by a little-known Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. 

The Alabama demonstration was to be followed by another on the East Coast, the so-called "Greensboro Sit-ins". In 1960 a group of African American college students went to a Woolworth chain store in Greensboro, North Carolina to purchase items and then decided to stay for lunch at the counter. Seeing them comfortably seated and ready to order food, the waitress told them emphatically, "I'm sorry. We don't serve blacks here." And they were asked to vacate. At the students' refusal the manager intervened. However, they persisted and remained seated ("sit-in") on the counter stools until the store closed. This same sit-in action was repeated in other similar stores in the region. Although many of those who participated in these sit-ins were taken to jail for "disorderly conduct" and "disturbing the peace," their actions had an impact that would transcend the borders of North Carolina, as a few months later Woolworth and other public establishments would eliminate their segregationist policies.

The August march

The struggle for civil rights reached its peak with the "March for Jobs and Freedom" on August 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C. The event was attended by several personalities, including Bob Dylan and several civil rights fighters such as Rosa Parks and Myrlie Evers, among others. Martin Luther King Jr. at the foot of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial, the president who in 1863 had proclaimed the emancipation of three and a half million enslaved African-Americans. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "I have a dream: that one day on the red hills of Georgia the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners may sit together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream: that one day even in the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream: that one day down there in Alabama...black boys and black girls will be able to hold hands with white boys and white girls, as sisters and brothers."

A year after this historic march, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited civil and employment discrimination based on sex or race. From that date until now, there have been advances and legislative victories in civil rights.

A struggle that continues

However, there is still much work to be done, as acknowledged by the Archbishop of Baltimore William E. Lori in a message he delivered on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, D.C.: "Perhaps we take comfort in the progress we have made thus far. Or perhaps we have a false belief that we have arrived at a post-racial society, in which, as Dr. King pointed out, people are not judged by the color of their skin. However, one need only look at the social inequalities in health, wealth and prosperity among racial groups in the U.S. to see that we are not there yet".

Those social disparities, Lori said, are the lingering consequences of the racism that prevailed in the country for decades and that some have called one of America's original sins. In light of this, Bishop Lori said that a continual conversion of heart is necessary. To do so, it is necessary to turn to the Church's social teaching, rooted in the dignity of the human person. "The peaceful and compassionate society that Dr. King dreamed of requires God's grace and our commitment to teach, learn and practice nonviolent actions to foster social change." Archbishop Lori urged reflection on racism from two pastoral reflections he authored called, "The Enduring Power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Principles of Nonviolence," from 2018 and "The Journey to Racial Justice: Repentance, Healing and Action" from 2019. 

The consequences of decades of racial segregation are still being felt 60 years after the historic march in the nation's capital. Dr. King's dream has yet to be realized as he envisioned it. "And when this happens and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every town and every village, from every state and every city, we can hasten the coming of that day when all God's children, white men and black men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual (chant), "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! We are free at last.

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