August 28, 1963:  A Quarter Million People And A Dream

by Dr. Rosa Colquitt, Democratic Party of Oregon Chair

Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr and a large crowd at the March on Washington

Today we remember that sixty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Celebrated as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — speeches of the 20th century, and carried live by television across the nation, I still find it hard to imagine what it must have felt like being there, listening to Dr. King’s voice, along with more than 250,000 non-violent protesters.

Today I begin my commentary with these rarely quoted words from Dr. King’s iconic speech:   “We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now . . . Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
 
Both the freedom march and speech were seminal moments that changed the course of American history forever. They were also instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Each year, however, as we observe this cherished occasion, we continue to ask ourselves the question:  “Where does the fight for equal opportunity and civil rights for Black Americans stand?”

Today, on August 28, 2023, this question must be asked in a new light as we face a real threat to our democracy for ALL Americans.
Most assuredly, the answer depends on who you ask. In a recent interview, 91-year old former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, who advised and marched with Dr. King in the 1960s, said it best:  “We take two steps forward and they make us take one step back. It’s a slow process that depends on the politics of the nation.”
Unquestionably, the 1963 March ushered forth clear progress in the decades that followed a time when Black Americans had no guarantee of equal rights under the law. In 2023, we face eroding voting rights through voter suppression laws in more than fourteen states, the striking down of affirmative action in college admissions and abortion rights by a Trump-packed conservative majority Supreme Court.

These facts, in concert with growing threats of violence against Blacks, other people of color, Jews and the LGBTQ+ community, mean that the march toward civil rights and justice for all must continue! It means that the real promises of democracy remain unfulfilled in 2023.

As we honor the 60th year anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, we acknowledge that Black Americans are much more educated, that they’re in more positions of political power — the United States elected its first African American President in 2008! — and Black unemployment has reached record lows through the Obama and Biden years.
Still, while we must not abandon the most optimistic view of racial progress that we can, some of the key measures of socio-economic justice and equality cannot be ignored. According to the Pew Research Center and other reputable research resources, the Black-White wealth gap has widened exponentially since 1963. Black home ownership has only risen modestly, along with depressed property values. Black Americans and other non-whites live disproportionately in communities plagued by climate disasters. The slow progress and the steps backward are real and must be overcome.
Today I will close as I began, with some of the less often quoted, but most profound, words from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This text, as spoken in 1963, despite measurable racial, economic and social progress, remains relevant in 2023, sixty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, Black men as well as White men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”

Remembering the legacy of the March on Washington, leading in unity of purpose with my Democratic family,
Rosa Colquitt, PhD
Chair, Democratic Party of Oregon