The dream is not yet a reality. That was the recurring theme at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that featured panelists, performances and a rousing keynote address from U.S. Rep. John Lewis on Sunday.
It was an event during which Martin Luther King, Jr. was quoted liberally, topics of discussion ranged from raising the minimum wage to the death of Trayvon Martin, and audience members — many of whom attended the original march — occasionally bowed their heads or wiped away tears.
“If it hadn’t been for the March on Washington, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” said Lewis, the sole surviving speaker from the march and one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. “It changed America forever.”
Rep. Lewis’ unique role in history
In a speech that was part history lesson and part call to action, Lewis detailed the development of the 1963 march that transformed the country’s social landscape and spurred the passage of key legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also described his own transformation from a boy in Troy, Ala., who questioned the existence of segregation, into a civil rights hero who risked his life for equality and justice.
“I would ask my mother and my father and my grandparents, my great grandparents, ‘Why?’ And they would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble,’” he said. “The action of Rosa Parks and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble – good trouble, necessary trouble.”
The event was held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, a fitting location considering that Lewis is the only recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement.
A member of Congress since 1986, Lewis served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966. He was also a freedom rider in the early to mid-‘60s who endured brutal beatings and multiple arrests to end racial segregation on interstate buses in the South. In 1965, he led a march for voting rights from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in what later became known as Bloody Sunday, when police attacked the marchers and Lewis suffered a skull fracture in the melee.
Remembering Dr. King and the march
But the focus of Sunday’s talk was, of course, the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. Organized in part by a small group of civil rights leaders that included Lewis, Dr. King, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, the march quickly took on a life of its own, Lewis explained, with an anticipated 50,000 attendees swelling to hundreds of thousands. It also produced perhaps the most memorable address of all time in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“He transformed the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern-day pulpit,” Lewis said.
In his own speech, then 23-year-old Lewis – who was unable to register to vote in his home state of Alabama at the time — sought to dramatize the issue of voting rights and create a sense of urgency among participants.
“[After the march] people started organizing more. They dared to speak out. They dared to get in the way,” he said. “So I think it’s fitting here at this great place, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 50 years after the March on Washington, for us to pause, because we are not there yet. We have not yet created a truly multiracial democratic society in America. It’s not post-racial.
“If you ask me whether the election of Barack Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, I say, ‘No, it’s just a down payment.’ There’s still too many people 50 years later, there’s still too many people that are being left out and left behind.”
King’s dream: Unfulfilled?
The themes of unfinished work and a dream not yet realized were echoed by panelists who discussed the march’s legacy with veteran journalist Callie Crossley before Lewis took the stage.
Peniel Joseph, author and professor of history at Tufts University, noted that although segregation has been outlawed, the two-tiered Jim Crow system that produced different outcomes for blacks and whites still exists in public schools, housing and the criminal justice system.
Elaine Jones, a civil rights attorney and activist, mentioned the recent dismantling of the Voting Rights Act as a troubling setback.
“There are certain battles we fought, we should not have to re-fight,” Jones said. “The Supreme Court, on certain issues, they need to learn how to stay in their lane.”
Rep. Lewis: Still optimistic about equality
Clayborne Carson, author and professor of history at Stanford University, said King’s dream did not just encompass civil rights for blacks, but human rights for all people.
“For me, the dream is still out there in the future,” Carson said.
For Lewis, now 73 and the only surviving speaker from the march, the dream is indeed somewhere out there in the future, but he is confident it will be realized one day.
“I’m very hopeful. I am very optimistic about the future,” Lewis said. “There may be some setbacks. There may be some difficulties, some interruptions, but as a nation and as a people, we are going to build a truly multiracial, democratic society that maybe can emerge as a model for the rest of the world.”
Lauren Carter is a writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter @bylaurencarter.