Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The March on Washington Fifty Years Later

March on Washington, 28 August 1963
(Image in Public Domain, courtesy of the National Archives)

Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant events of 20th century America, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where upwards of 300,000 people, more than three-quarters of whom were African Americans, gathered for what must, in retrospect, be judged to be the signature event of the Civil Rights Movement. Today this event is known primarily as the occasion when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the thrilling rhetoric and moral power of which still resonates to this day (for the text of his speech and my ruminations on it, see my post here).

The event is justly famous. But what has been its lasting impact? What lasting change, if any, did it actually effect? I ask these questions in the realization that some progress has been made. After all, when my dad and mom moved from North Jersey to Dallas in 1950 to attend seminary, the Texas city still had "colored-only" water fountains and rest rooms. Northern cities like the beloved Philadelphia of my youth were de facto segregated due to mass white flight out of the inner city industrial neighborhoods to newly-developed areas of the city's Great Northeast and the lily-white, wealthy suburbs. The triple whammy of white flight, post-World War II deindustrialization, and redlining conspired to make life miserable and devoid of hope for the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who just decades before had migrated to the city from the Jim Crow South to work in the thousands of factories in what was then the "Workshop of America." Even the media—dismissed as hopelessly "liberal" by the right-wing masses—could hardly mask their contempt for Dr. King's cause, as may be seen in the August 25, 1963 edition of Meet the Press, recorded just three days before the famous march.

Thankfully such overt discrimination and prejudice are legally disallowed and societally frowned upon in today's America. Just ask Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper, who was caught on videotape using the "n-word" at a Kenny Chesney concert in Camden, New Jersey on 31 July. While fined for his vile utterance, at least he kept his job, which is more than can be said about former Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas, who was fired from his position at ESPN when, a mere fortnight later, he used the same expression at an Orlando nightclub. Use of racially-offensive epithets is clearly, and rightly, unacceptable in America today.

Yet the problem persists. Joblessness, poverty, and incarceration still plague the black community. Moreover, large numbers of America's majority whites still haven't got with the program. While explicitly racist speech is strongly condemned in the public square, the anonymity provided by the internet encourages cowardly racists to spew their ignorant vitriol in the comments to numerous articles on, which I read every day to remind myself, if such were needed, of inveterate human sinfulness. And, sad to say, Riley Cooper is unique only in the sense that he was caught in using hateful speech. Indeed, only a month earlier a man named Darren Walp of Ridley Park, PA was arrested after shouting racial epithets and waving a Confederate battle flag after scaling the fence of an adjacent apartment complex during a Toby Keith concert in Camden. [Is it mere coincidence that both these incidents occurred in the context of a country music concert? One wonders. And the mere sight of a displayed Confederate flag, particularly in the north, always gets my dander up.] 

One must conclude that Dr. King's dream, fueled in part by the glorious vision of the Hebrew prophets, remains only partially fulfilled. And that is to be expected. Dr. King, after all, used the glorious words of Isaiah 40 ("Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.") to describe his dream and the famous exhortation of Amos ("we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.") to give specific content to it. As I have often emphasized, the New Testament consistently presents what has been described as "inaugurated eschatology." Yes, the Christ event brought with it an initial fulfillment of the covenant promises of the Old Testament. But their complete realization, and the ultimate transformation of both humanity and creation itself awaits the consummation of the kingdom subsequent to Jesus' triumphant return. In the meantime, humanity remains fatally flawed by virtue of the sin which resides in each of us [Indeed, as I often say, "total depravity" is the only empirically demonstrable "Calvinistic" doctrine.] In the meantime, it is incumbent on us who name the name of Christ to work to embody and promote (with love!) the priorities and perspectives of the kingdom until he comes, in the sure hope that at that time justice will run down like waters and all peoples will join together in praise of the one who loved them and gave himself for them.

I leave you with two videos: first, Dr. King's stirring speech itself (which really must be watched and heard to experience its power), and second, the performances by one of my musical heroes, Bob Dylan, at the march.

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