Activists Widen Scope of Civil Rights March
As the historic '63 march spurred civil rights legislation, activists hope tomorrow's march will revive jobs program
WASHINGTON — THIRTY years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. riveted the nation with his "I Have a Dream" speech, the capital is gearing up for a reprise of that watershed civil rights march on Washington.
Since the Aug. 28, 1963, march, "everything has changed and nothing has changed" for African-Americans, march organizer Joseph Lowery often says.
That may be a bit of an oversimplification, other movement leaders say. But it captures the contradictory mood of activists as they take stock of where blacks stand 30 years later.
Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, an organizer of the '63 march, stresses the positive. "Since 1963, I think we have witnessed - at least in the southern parts of America - what I like to call a nonviolent revolution.
"We live in a different country.... Thirty years ago, there was a tremendous amount of fear among black people," he says. "Black people could not participate in the democratic process; they couldn't register to vote. You still had lines for white men and colored men, white women and colored women, white waiting and colored waiting. Those signs are gone, and they will not return."
Mr. Lewis recalls that in 1963, his parents could not register to vote in rural Alabama. In the 11 Southern states, there were less than 50 elected black officials. Today, he says, there are more than 6,000, and every Southern state except Arkansas has at least one black in Congress.
The racism of 1963 was so overt and the hurt among blacks so palpable that when word of the Washington demonstration spread in June 1963, an event organizers thought would draw up to 30,000 ballooned into the largest D.C. protest to date, with 250,000 people.
In later years, Congress and President Johnson enacted laws that addressed some grievances. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and employment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned the use of poll taxes that would deny the right to vote and lowered education and literacy requirements for voting.
But on another issue of the '63 march - jobs - progress is less clear. While the ranks of black professionals and middle and upper classes have grown, job prospects compared with those for whites are strikingly similar to 30 years ago. In 1963, black unemployment was at 11 percent, compared with 5 percent for whites. In July 1993, black joblessness stood at 12.9 percent compared with 6 percent for whites. And the outlook is not good.
"We're moving into an era now where there are no jobs," says William Haskins, programs vice president at the National Urban League and a 1963 march participant. "We're talking about things like standards, things like being competitive on a worldwide basis.... We're talking about a lot of things that are going to X out a lot of hard-core disadvantaged people."
Companies and the military, a traditional route for minorities, are downsizing, Mr. Haskins points out. "These are all basic issues for everybody, they're just doubled and tripled for African-Americans and Latinos."
The theme of tomorrow's march is "jobs, justice, and peace," but the most important message to the Washington leadership is the need for jobs, says Steve Horblitt, a march coordinator. If the '63 march spawned civil rights and voting-rights legislation, '93 march organizers hope to create a groundswell of support for a revived $16 billion jobs-stimulus package in Congress as requested by President Clinton - and defeated in a Senate filibuster.
The trouble is, sentiment in Congress is heading in the other direction, toward budget-cutting, not deficit-spending on jobs to rebuild roads and bridges.
And if march organizers seem to be running against the tide in Congress, they are also fighting a perceived apathy among the rank and file of African Americans. After an impressive turnout of 300,000 10 years ago for the 20th-anniversary march, organizers are downsizing expectations this year by predicting a turnout in the "tens of thousands," with a broadened coalition of ethnic, women's, and gay groups.
Why the lack of urgency that impelled masses to turn out in 1963 and '83? "Because nobody believes anything is going to change," Haskins says. "It changes for other people. Italians and other ethnic groups that went into these neighborhoods 30, 40, 50 years ago, they got out. Black people - their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren - are still there."
Haskins says the march serves by letting Washington leaders know there are people "hurting out there." But Robert Woodson, a black activist who works to improve life for poor minorities through self-help programs, calls it counterproductive, "because it continues to fix the American public's attention on race."
Further, Mr. Woodson adds, "There's nothing the government can do right now to help blacks in crisis. It's only the civil rights movement - professionally trained blacks and Hispanics - that benefits from the march."
March organizers, of course, take issue with such views, but they share the sense that, in some ways, new troubles in the black community - such as black-on-black violence and drug abuse - have supplanted the old. "We all talked 30 years ago about genocide. It's now fratricide. At this point, the [Ku Klux] Klan is not nearly the threat that next-door neighbors are," the Rev. Jesse Jackson told black government workers in Los Angeles last week.
Haskins concludes: "Probably, the overwhelming thing that happened in this country that nobody figured on was drugs. I mean, when I was coming up, you had maybe a little wine, a little reefer. Now, in the ghettos in this country, everywhere you look there's drugs."