By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
This past weekend thousands of Americans gathered in Washington—joined in spirit, no doubt, by millions of their compatriots throughout the country—to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the historic March on Washington that occurred August 28, 1963.
In fact, the commemoration had an even more important purpose: to declare that there's a great deal of work yet to be done on the civil rights and racial justice front. Our present and future is where, to use the words of a civil rights anthem of those years, we all need to keep our eyes most sharply on the prize of closing the egregious "equality gaps" in America.
But Saturday's celebration is also worthwhile in helping us recall the racial tenor of the early 1960s in America, and in making clear how difficult and strewn with obstacles was the path that led to and from the Lincoln Memorial that sweltering August day.
One fresh look at those years can be found in the new gripping biography of President John F. Kennedy by the historian Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 – 1963.
Dallek shows how lukewarm—at best—America's white majority was regarding the right of Americans of African descent to full citizenship. Most felt that the nonviolent demonstrations civil rights activists were using to challenge segregation in the South would do more to hurt than help bring about integration.
For example, in May 1961, when the Gallup Poll asked if integration should be brought about by every means in the near future, only 23 percent agreed; 61 percent preferred gradual change. Another Gallup poll that spring found that only 24 percent of the country approved of the Freedom Rides activists were staging to test the federal law barring segregation in interstate travel; 64 percent disapproved.
A May 1962 Gallup Poll found that 67 percent of Americans thought the Kennedy Administration's civil rights policy—which at that point was actually to do as little as possible—was either just right or pushing too fast for integration. Only 11 percent thought the Administration was not moving fast enough.
Kennedy's inactivity, as Dallek shows, was a product of both his personal lack of concern about civil rights up to that point and his political need not to antagonize the Southern segregationist Senators and Representatives who then dominated the Congress.
But in broader terms JFK also perfectly represented the great gap between White America's rhetorical allegiance to the ideals of the Constitution and the Declaration and the reality most whites either actively pursued or tolerated.
It was the civil rights movement that helped—and compelled—White America to narrow that gap.
That hypocrisy is what Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring to that day at the Lincoln Memorial when he declared the movement's intent "to dramatize an appalling condition"—namely, America's defaulting on its "promissory note" of "the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for all. "But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt," King went on, his metaphors drawing knowing laughter from the throng. "We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation."
Before King spoke, Whitney M. Young, Jr., then head of the National Urban League, had reminded those listening that while the March was "a tribute" to African Americans' unstinting faith in America, "[T]hat we meet here at all, however, is to the shame of some who have always blocked the progress of the brown American."
The 1963 March on Washington was just one sign in the early 1960s that JFK, and many others in White America, had, as Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. later put it, "miscalculated the dynamism of a revolutionary movement."
I'm confident that those present—in person and in spirit—at the Lincoln Memorial last Saturday understand that, contrary to the rhetoric of some, the need for a "revolutionary movement" for civil rights and racial justice remains.
It is America's paradox of progress that the considerable advances made on the racial front since the 1960s underscore the equality gaps that continue to exist between blacks and whites in such areas as education, in income and wealth, in access to health care and home ownership, and in the assurance of freedom from discrimination, and the guarantee of justice in the criminal justice system.
The "heavy lifting" in closing those gaps will be the responsibility of all Americans—even if, as was the case during the civil rights years of the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans must bear more than their share of the work.
That reality isn't something we should shrink from. It's something we at the National Urban League welcome, for we take as inspiration Whitney M. Young's closing words that day:
"This is the real significance of our March on Washington today, August 28, 1963," he said. "Our march is a march for America. It is a march just begun."
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