Sometimes, history can be divided into ‘before and after.’ Before and after the printing press. Before and after the “shot heard round the world” in Lexington, Massachusetts, that signaled the beginning of the American Revolution. Before and after the atomic bomb, or the landing on the moon. Before and after the morning of September 11, 2001. Moments in time when the course of human history – our destiny, our direction, our very self-understanding of who we are, as a people – as people – shifts forever.
One such moment occurred in late August, 1963, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. – when a quarter of a million people – roughly 200,000 of them African-American – peacefully assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating a century since the Emancipation Proclamation, and demanding their long-overdue, God-given, Constitution-guaranteed, civil rights. That day, history changed.
It marked the end of a very remarkable spring and summer in American history. Before the March on Washington, Martin Luther King had been thrown in a Birmingham jail. Before the March on Washington, Bull Connor had released police dogs and water cannons on peaceful protestors. Before the March on Washington, Governor George Wallace had stood in the doorway of a building at the University of Alabama, attempting to physically prevent African-American students from enrolling there. Before the March on Washington – just two months before – Medgar Evers, a prominent civil rights leader in Mississippi who himself was battling in court for the right to be admitted to a college – to the University of Mississippi Law School – just before the March on Washington, Medgar Evers was assassinated, in his driveway, by a member of a local group called the White Citizens’ Council.
The litany of evil – is seemingly endless. And Lord knows – the March on Washington did not bring it to an end. But after the March – when civil rights organizers returned to the South to continue their struggle – something had forever changed. They carried with them a moral mandate. A point of no return had been passed.
Martin Luther King’s iconic speech had placed the civil rights movement in a broader historical perspective – wrapping it in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation – transforming civil rights, in the words of youthful participant Andrew Young, “from a Southern black movement, into a national, multi-racial, human rights movement.” The size and the scope of the March made it impossible, any longer, to deny the depth and breadth of that movement – and made the political successes that would shortly follow almost inevitable.
Before the March on Washington, it was possible to ignore both the Supreme Court and the U.S. Justice Department – to deny African-Americans admittance to Southern colleges and universities – access to whites-only bathrooms and water fountains – to the voting booth. But after the March on Washington, came the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
After the March on Washington, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After the March on Washington, the goals of the civil rights movement were somehow legitimized, in the eyes of many white Americans, which ultimately led to their being legalized. And after the March on Washington, some of its own organizers –among them Andrew Young, John Lewis, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Julian Bond – were elected, to political office, breaking new ground at the same time they were breaking color barriers.
Fast forward, half a century. Without the March on Washington – without Dr. King’s powerful articulation of the Dream – it is difficult to imagine a President, Barack Obama. Do you remember seeing the faces of some of those now elder statesmen and stateswomen of the civil rights movement, on that night in November, 2008, when Obama was elected? Written there on those faces – amid the tears and the smiles and the eyes filled with disbelief at being alive, to see that day – written there was confirmation that a piece – just a piece, but an important piece – of the Dream, had been realized.
Yet we know, all too painfully well, that though the arc of history was bent, just a bit, toward justice, that hot afternoon in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago – we have not yet reached, the promised land. It is true that, after the March on Washington came the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Institutions of higher learning, businesses, city councils and civic organizations were integrated. But also, after the March on Washington – less than three weeks after – a bomb, planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, ripped apart the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young black children. It was but the beginning of several waves of violent response to the forced desegregation of the South. Rioting in various cities – including Cincinnati – throughout the 1960s, highlighted just how difficult such a social and cultural paradigm shift can be. And let us not forget that it was only after the March on Washington, and its successes, that the era’s most prominent and powerful proponents of civil rights – John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy – each, one after the other, was assassinated.
Yes, though the unprecedented crowd on the Mall that historic day in D.C. – unprecedented in its size, unprecedented in its integration, unprecedented in what today we would call its “diversity” – though they sang “We Shall Overcome” – we know, that we did not actually overcome, that day. Nor have we, yet.
And friends, I am here this morning – after listening once again to the inspiring, moving, impossible-to-hear-without-crying words of Martin Luther King Jr. – and after another disturbing summer of discontent – I am here today to try to shake us out of our complacency, to urge us, in the words of that antiphonal prayer I borrowed from another faith tradition, to “find a way, to stop just celebrating the dream, [and] to start living it.” To fight against injustice and prejudice, anywhere and everywhere we find it. Here. Now. In today’s world. “When I feel secure,” that reading tells us, “I must remember the insecure. When I see injustice, I must remember that it will not end, until I help make it end.”
Folks – I see injustice every time I turn on the news. We need not look far, for evidence of how far we still have to go. The Voting Rights Act – legislation that, for 48 years, allowed enforcement of the constitutional right to vote, in places where that right was being intentionally, viciously, and sometimes violently denied to the minority, by the majority – that Voting Rights Act was eviscerated this summer, by a deeply, ideologically divided Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision on a case brought by – you guessed it – a county including the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama – the Supreme Court removed restrictions on primarily Southern states that had kept them from rigging their voting systems, to deny African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities access to the ballot box.
Before the March on Washington – and the Voting Rights Act that resulted from it – there were the infamous poll taxes and literacy tests and other insidious laws in the South that effectively prevented blacks from voting. The beauty, of the Voting Rights Act, was in its so-called “pre-clearance” clause, which required certain political jurisdictions – in many cases, entire states – that had a history of discriminatory voting laws to get the approval of the United States Department of Justice, before enacting any such voting laws. The Voting Rights Act, it should be noted, was repeatedly extended by Congress – four times, in fact, most recently in 2006 by a quite conservative Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, all of whom supported extending it because of clear and ongoing efforts in parts of the country to thwart the right of minorities to vote, at every turn.
In other words, as recently as seven years ago, the Voting Rights Act was a bipartisan affair. But no more.
Yet for 48 years – after the March on Washington – the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia were kept in check – were required to submit, for approval by federal authorities, their voting laws. Maybe that seems extreme to you. Why, you may ask, do we still need such laws, in the 21st century? Haven’t we grown past the need for such oversight? Well, in a word – no.
In 2001, for example, the white mayor and the all-white Board of Aldermen of a small town in Mississippi actually cancelled an election when census results showed that African-Americans had become the majority of voters in the town – effectively declaring themselves monarchs of the municipality. Under the authority of the federal Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice was able to intervene. Still, it took until 2003 – two years – before another election was held. But when it was held – guess what? The town elected its first African-American mayor, and three black aldermen.
After this summer’s Supreme Court ruling – that could not have happened.
Also in 2003, a small town in South Carolina tried a new and creative way to protect the dwindling – white – voting majority. The town (ironically called “North,” South Carolina), sought to annex an adjoining unincorporated area, that, just coincidentally, was all white. Again, under the authority of the federal Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice stepped in – pointing out that a request for annexation by a predominantly black area on the other side of town, a decade earlier, had been denied. The Justice Department concluded, [quote], “race appears to be an overriding factor” in the town’s annexation decisions – and thus blocked that particular attempt to rig an upcoming election.
After this summer’s Supreme Court ruling – that could not have happened.
Now you may think – you may want to believe – that such transparently racist voter suppression schemes are isolated incidents – but the evidence proves otherwise. This kind of thing has been going on quite literally ever since freed former slaves got the right to vote – and the March on Washington and the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act hardly did away with the determination, or the sentiment, of those who seek to deny minorities the vote. No, those laws just gave the law some teeth, to the legal effort to thwart such efforts.
And – I have to say it – if anything, the election of an African-American President in 2008 prompted an even greater number of similarly desperate attempts to circumscribe the voting populace. A rash of so-called “voter ID laws” were introduced around the country following the election of Barack Obama – laws that required government issued, photo identification before one could have access to the ballot box. It is certainly no coincidence that minority populations and marginalized demographic groups, especially blacks and Latinos, are much more likely to not have such IDs.
Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, one such law – in Texas, where the 2010 census showed 89 percent of its ten-year population growth of more than 4 million people, was non-white – thanks to the Voting Rights Act, a Texas photo ID law was blocked. But within hours of the Supreme Court decision this summer – which significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act – Texas officials – white Texas officials – announced they would immediately begin implementing, the same voter ID law that the Justice Department had declared, three years ago, to be a violation of civil rights.
And just this week, as thousands of protestors marched in the state capitol, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, signed what many are calling the nation’s most restrictive voting law – the new gold standard of voter suppression. Without the threat of being stopped by the now-impotent Voting Rights Act, the very conservative North Carolina legislature is cutting back on early voting, eliminating same-day registration, and requiring certain specific, state-issued photo IDs to vote – IDs that many minorities, students, and poor people (especially those without cars) do not have.
The American Civil Liberties Union has already filed suit against these new efforts to deny thousands access to the polls. Meanwhile, as I said, thousands are marching, in the streets, in protest, and will be doing so again tomorrow, in what have become weekly “Moral Monday” demonstrations. Even the Attorney General of the United States – and the Justice Department – remember them? – are preparing to sue North Carolina.
Friends, I could go on all morning – but I trust I have given you enough real-world, concrete examples to convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt, that despite the great strides forward that began with the March on Washington, and the federal legislation that followed – despite the election and re-election of an African-American President (perhaps, even, because of these things) those who would limit, rather than expand, civil rights – those who would deny even the most basic of democratic freedoms – the right to vote – because of one’s race or ethnicity – these kinds of vile and cowardly collusion, remain alive and well in America, in 2013 – because racism remains alive and well, in the hearts of many Americans.
We have come a long way – but we have not come far enough.
Which is why we must still have a dream. Why we must not allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking we have finished the task. No – we must continue to work for that dream – for our dream – for a time when not only “right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” – but for a day when their parents, who are of legal age and are citizens of this great country, can have equal access to the voting booth – where their votes will each count, equally – where no one, be they a local city or county election official, or a political partisan on the sidewalk outside the polling place, or a roving band of zealots in a pickup truck – all of which I have personally seen with my own eyes – where no one can or would dare try to legislate or intimidate a single person into not voting.
That is my dream. It’s been said before – and I’ll say it again – I may be a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Though I was only five years old when Martin Luther King spoke of his dream – that dream is alive and well in me, today – as it is in thousands – no, millions – of others. We are now the embodiment of the dream. We are the ones to whom it is left to complete the task.
It may be a long climb, up that mountain – it may be a long way, to that promised land – but we are undeterred. For justice is on our side. History, is on our side.
We still have a dream. Let us get to work making it a reality.
May it be so – and amen!