It was an event that had one foot in the past and another in the present and future. The commemorative March on Washington was as much a celebration of the historic event a half century ago as it was a call for vigilance on voting rights and employment in the age of President Obama. The greatest challenge for the march was to find a way to pay homage to the past without ignoring the very real challenges facing people of color in 2013.
Somehow, the march managed to address that challenge quite effectively.
There was credit paid to the past, but clear focus on the issues of today, with great clarity to each.
There were the figures that are by now icons of African-American history, from Congressman John Lewis to C.T. Vivian, the close friend and lieutenant of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. There was also the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
But there were also figures who spoke at the march who symbolized how far the nation has come since that 1963 event. One of the speakers was Eric Holder, the African-American attorney general serving under the nation’s first African-American president.
Yet, there was an unmistakable feeling that, despite the presence of President Obama in the White House and Holder at the Department of Justice, there were so many issues that mirrored the concerns that were the focus of that march 50 years ago.
“Everything has changed and nothing has changed,” Lowery said, invoking a theme that had great resonance for the marchers and that had great symbolic depth.
If anything underscored that point, it was the presence of the family of Emmett Till, the African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of 14 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. That family stood alongside Sybrina Martin, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old Florida student who was shot by George Zimmerman last year.
There were calls for Congress to pass legislation to restore the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the United State Supreme Court recently. It seemed to mirror calls for voting rights from civil rights leaders in 1963. Moreover, the Rev. Al Sharpton offered soaring oratory that captured the challenge of the day brilliantly. It was an address steeped as much in the activist tradition as it was in the call for imagining the kind of nation the United States should be toward all its citizens.
There were also speakers who criticized the stand your ground laws throughout the country, legislation that encourages vigilante justice. Also, there was celebration of the court rulings and legislative action de-fanging New York City’s stop-and-frisk laws.
Just as civil rights leaders criticized poll taxes in 1963, there was great criticism of the current rash of voter identification laws, which are the handiwork of Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors largely designed to make voting more challenging for African-Americans, Latinos and young people.
In all, it was a brilliant tribute to those who were the bedrock figures of the civil rights movement and the brilliant event of 1963. But it was also an important call for activism to fight for the economically depressed and Americans whose voting rights are being compromised with chilling speed.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)