Marching Until…

Thousands congregated on the National Mall this past Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of this nation’s largest political rallies for human rights.

The original march had the theme of jobs and civil rights for African Americans and is widely credited with contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The highlight was Martin Luther King Jr., standing before the Lincoln Memorial, delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“It was very moving,” said Regina Kinnard, 69, who attended the anniversary march with her family.  Kinnard, who lives in the District, recalls taking a day off of work to attend the first rally on August 28th, 1963. “You didn’t really know what you were walking into, given the mood of the times.  But once it started, it was almost spiritual.”

Tomorrow, on the actual anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington, Presidents Obama, Carter, and Clinton will speak at the Lincoln Memorial. Large crowds are expected.

The view on Saturday was moving. A sea of people surrounded the reflecting pool and washed up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where leaders such as Rev. Al Sharpton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Martin Luther King III, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, shared words of wisdom and encouragement.

For the most part, T-shirts and shorts replaced the business suits and crisply pressed dresses captured in black and white photographs of that first historic rally. And Saturday’s event lacked the fiery and poetic oration of one gifted and wise-beyond-his-years civil rights leader.

But you had the feeling he was there in spirit.

The celebration wasn’t lacking in conviction, participation, civility, or the desire to keep on keeping on. It was a more diverse crowd.  What’s more, the attendees were, like their forefathers, politically astute.

Every person I encountered conveyed a feeling that, while civil rights have expanded dramatically over the past five decades — with more African Americans serving in government, seeking higher education, and having access to housing, for example — some hard-won freedoms are being threatened.

Wherever I strolled along the Mall, there was a murmur of deep concern regarding factors ranging from the exclusionary politics of the Tea Party to the U.S. Supreme Court’s stunning 5-4 decision to gut a section of the Voting Rights Act. The court’s recent action has resulted in attempts by several states to enact voter I.D. laws and restrict early voting, making it tougher for poor, minority, and elderly voters to participate.  Even college-age voters are being targeted, with legislatures aiming to end on-campus voting. The restrictions are backed by Republican governors and legislators.  All run contrary to the tenants of democracy, which encourage full and open participation by all eligible voters.

Also referenced was the phrase, “taking our country back,” a canned line frequently uttered by House Republicans as well as by newly minted Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz.

Back to what?

Rally attendees seemed to have more than an inkling of what the what stood for but most were too gracious to spell it out.  So I will: back to a time when whites ruled in business, government, and society.

Here’s a news flash:  Whites still pretty much rule.  They hold more positions of authority than minorities.  They have greater rates of employment, lower rates of arrest, and more access to healthcare.  And they are rarely ever profiled.

“It all comes down to the vote,” said Gabi Martinez, a young Planned Parenthood organizer from Annapolis, Md. “‘Injustice to one is injustice to all.’  That’s what (civil rights activist) Fannie Lou Hamer said.”

The Trayvon Martin case was mentioned this past weekend.  Martin’s mother spoke briefly.  There were concerns about the proliferation of guns and gun violence and the warped rationale behind Stand Your Ground laws.  The motivation for such destructive legislation might be better understood if the measures were labeled based on what they actually allow whites to do: Stand Your Ground Against Minorities and People of Color.

Regina’s husband, Matthew Kinnard, who missed the 1963 rally because it was his first day of work at the National Institutes of Health, made sure he didn’t miss Saturday’s event. Kinnard, a retired neuroscientist, held the hand of his five-year-old grandson, as he existed the Mall.  He identified the recklessness of conservative commentators such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter as contributing to threats against civil rights.

I thought of Kinnard’s observation the day after the rally as I watched Fox News Sunday.  A panel of “experts” dissected the anniversary march, although it was telling that Fox didn’t invite a single participant of Saturday’s event or the 1963 march to its table.  At one point, a discussion of affirmative action surfaced. That’s when a clearly flabbergasted Chris Wallace, blurted, “At what point do you say (to blacks) you’re on your own?”

Permit me to answer:

We are the United States of America, which means we stand with one another.  We strive to make it possible that ALL have a shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And we strive until. 

Until a black man can catch a taxi cab as easily as a white man. Until an African American teen strolling home from a 7-11 with candy and a soft drink cannot be stalked and killed. Until the citizenship of the first black president of the United States is not repeatedly questioned and shameful calls for his impeachment cease. Until Rush Limbaugh stops speaking in what he refers to as his “negro dialect” when speaking of Al Sharpton or our President, among others.  Until conservatives stop reacting with knee-jerk anger and partisan rhetoric every time a civil rights issue is raised and start examining their own hearts.  Their Christian hearts, I might add.

Some on the right are encouraging compassion — former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele; former Secretary of State Colin Powell; former election manager for John McCain, Steve Schmidt.  But it’s not enough.

President Obama, in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial, spoke eloquently of his experience growing up as a black man of average means in America.  He said he could have been Trayvon, a matter-of-fact admission that the Right, its back perpetually up, jumped on. The President had something to say, a message that was meant to educate and inform, not to ridicule or judge. The Right knows this and it irks them.

The President recalled hearing locks on car doors click whenever, in his younger years, he walked down a street at night, or seeing women hug their purses more tightly whenever he stepped into an elevator.

If you are white and still have such reactions: you feel an overwhelming urge to cross the street when you see a black man heading your way; you become angry or frustrated when the talk of black rights or gay rights or women’s rights comes up; you immediately decided that Zimmerman was innocent and Martin was guilty; you’ve never actually sat down with your black friends to hear their stories or attempted to understand their struggle; you have no black friends….

If any of these circumstances apply then maybe you could stand to think about racism and civil rights a while longer, focusing on “the other,” considering what it might feel like to walk in different shoes.

We are at a critical point.

We have once again arrived at what Dr. King referred to as “the fierce urgency of now.”