WASHINGTON (AP) — Next week, the first black U.S. president, a living symbol of the racial progress civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed about, will stand near the spot where King stood 50 years ago and say where he believes the nation should be headed.
Then, like King, President Barack Obama will step away from the hulking Lincoln Memorial, and return to where this nation is now.
As civil rights activists pause to consider the great strides toward equality that the 1963 March on Washington helped to spur, they also look at the current political and racial landscape, and wonder: How much of that progress is now being undone?
This march anniversary comes just two months after the Supreme Court effectively erased a key anti-discrimination provision of the Voting Rights Act, unleashing a string of restrictive voting laws and rules in several states. The court also raised the bar for consideration of race in university admissions, and made it more difficult to bring employment discrimination lawsuits.
There are other new issues, such as demands for a federal civil rights prosecution of George Zimmerman for fatally shooting unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin, and abiding ones, such as persistent unemployment among black Americans that runs at a significantly higher rate than that for whites.
“A convergence of things have happened that have exposed … the fact that we are in a pretty important moment, kind of a democratic crossroads in this country,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Crossroads or not, you have to continue the work of pushing forward.” NAACP stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a name the group dropped in favor of keeping the initials.
The observances begin Saturday with a march from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial, led by the civil right activist Rev. Al Sharpton and King’s son, Martin Luther King III. They will be joined by the parents of Trayvon Martin, and family members of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was kidnapped, beaten and shot in the head in 1955 after he was accused of flirting with a white woman.
Sharpton has refused to call Saturday’s march a commemoration or a celebration. He says it is meant to protest “the continuing issues that have stood in the way” of fulfilling King’s dream. Martin’s and Till’s families, he said, symbolize the effects that laws such as the stop-and-frisk search tactics by New York police, and Florida’s Stand Your Ground self defense statute, have in black and Latino communities.
“To just celebrate Dr. King’s dream would give the false implication that we believe his dream has been fully achieved and we do not believe that,” Sharpton said. “We believe we’ve made a lot of progress toward his dream, but we do not believe we’ve arrived there yet.”
Obama is scheduled to speak at the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony on Wednesday, and will be joined by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Along with their speeches, there will be a nationwide bell ringing at 3 p.m. to mark the exact time King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech about racial equality, with which the march is most associated. The events were organized by The King Center in Atlanta and a coalition of civil rights groups.
King was a Baptist minister and social rights activist who led the civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968.
Two months before the Aug. 28, 1963 march, President John F. Kennedy made a passionate statement about the morality of racial equality. He introduced a civil rights law that prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and called for stronger action enforcing the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down segregation in public schools.
William Jones, author of “The March On Washington,” said at the time of the 1963 march, the ideal of racial equality already was accepted by many. The primary goal, he said, was to call for strong federal enforcement of that ideal, and to push for a federal law prohibiting private employers and unions from discriminating against people because of their race.
The current Supreme Court also accepted the ideal of racial equality, Jones said, and stated the need for it in its recent decisions on voting rights, university admissions and employment discrimination cases, but “backtracked” on the ability to enforce that ideal.
“And in a sense that’s exactly the situation that organizers of the march were dealing with,” Jones said.
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