As we mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, we celebrate progress but recognize that MLK’s dream remains unfulfilled

OPINION: As we remember the occasion that gave us Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the struggle continues to overcome the many setbacks to racial justice.

An engraving at the Lincoln Memorial marks where Martin Luther King, Jr. made his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech
An engraving at the Lincoln Memorial marks the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. made his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech August 22, 2003 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Thousands of people are expected to gather Saturday to mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when some 250,000 people heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech calling for equal rights for Black Americans and an end to racism.

Please click on this link to watch the magnificent speech for yourself. I’ve seen it many times, and it still brings tears to my eyes, especially when I reflect on the terrible loss the world suffered when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 at the age of just 39. 

The anniversary gathering has been endorsed by over 100 organizations representing a wide range of Americans from every race. It will take place at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. — the same spot where Dr. King spoke on Aug. 28, 1963. A march to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will follow.

Leaders of the event include the Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, his wife, Arndrea Waters King, AFSCME President Lee Saunders and many others.

Importantly, Saturday will be more than a commemoration of the 1963 march. It will be a call to action to make Dr. King’s dream a reality. It will go beyond protesting discrimination against Black people to protest discrimination against other people of color, women, LGBTQ Americans, immigrants and other marginalized groups.

My immediate family did not make the long travel to Washington, D.C., and while only 3 years old, I don’t recall the day, but I’m told I watched news coverage with my grandmother at our home outside of New Orleans.

Just 20 years later, I had a great opportunity to help organize an anniversary event commemorating the 1963 march. Many people thought I was too young to coordinate the event. But I had a track record of success.

A year earlier, I had served as the director of mobilization for a march seeking congressional approval of a national holiday honoring Dr. King that drew about 150,000 people to Washington. I worked with Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and with prominent civil rights leaders and elected officials to make the 1982 event a success.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.., March on Washington, 1963,
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. acknowledges the crowd outside the Lincoln Memorial for his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. (AP Photo/File)

When I began working on the 20th-anniversary march that took place in 1983 — signing up speakers and entertainers, refereeing disputes between participants, attracting people to attend, renting portable toilets and buses, and building a small staff — many feared the turnout would be disappointingly low. In the end, we estimated the march brought as many as 400,000 people to Washington.

The 1983 march was a life-changing event for me, catapulting me into a lifelong career in civil rights and American politics. I felt I was doing my small part to pursue Dr. King’s dream. I was optimistic in 1983 that Black progress would continue. After all, in 1963 Dr. King touched the hearts of Americans like no one else and he sparked welcome change. 

The 1963 march, along with lobbying by civil rights advocates and President Lyndon Johnson, were key factors in winning congressional approval for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The measure outlawed discrimination in public places and in employment and required the integration of schools and public facilities.

The fight to give Black Americans our constitutional rights continued and resulted in the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned discriminatory practices in Southern states that kept millions of Black Americans, including my own parents, from voting.

Unfortunately, there have been many setbacks on the road to racial justice.

Supreme Court decisions in 2013 and 2021 substantially weakened key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Republicans have blocked efforts by President Joe Biden and Democrats to strengthen voting rights, but if Democrats keep their majority in the Senate and regain control of the House in the 2024 elections, they will get another chance to restore protections of our sacred right to vote.

Instead of gradually declining, as I had expected, white resistance to Black progress has grown in recent years, fueled by former President Donald Trump and far-right Republican politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who have turned the GOP into the party of white grievance.

Unbelievably, Republicans in 18 states are now requiring schools to whitewash the ugly history of slavery, Jim Crow and the systemic racism that continues to this day. They have incorrectly demonized the truthful accounting as critical race theory.

For example, DeSantis signed a bill into law in Florida making it illegal to tell students that anyone is oppressed or privileged because of the person’s race and bars any instruction that could make someone “feel guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” because of his or her race, color, national origin or sex. This led Florida to ban an Advanced Placement African American Studies course from state high schools. Arkansas banned the same course this month.

DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has even strongly defended Florida’s new curriculum for middle school instruction, which requires students to be taught that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” 

There are other troubling signs. The Supreme Court recently outlawed race-based affirmative action. Corporate programs to encourage diversity, equity and inclusion in their workforces are under attack. Unarmed Black people continue to fall victim to police brutality, including some who are killed. Black family incomes continue to be far lower than the incomes of white families.

In addition, the voting rights of Black people and other groups favoring Democrats are under attack once again. The Tennessee Legislature expelled two Black members who protested gun violence. And Trump falsely denounces Black prosecutors and judges involved in his four criminal indictments as anti-white racists.

So on this 60th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s speech, his dream remains unfulfilled, despite the great progress America has made in many areas. We must continue the struggle.

As Dr. King said in his 1963 speech: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. … Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Donna Brazile Headshot

Donna Brazile is a veteran political strategist, Senior Advisor at Purple Strategies, New York Times bestselling author, Chair of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, and sought-after Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning media contributor to such outlets as ABC News, USA Today and TheGrio. She previously served as interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee and of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. Donna was the first Black American to serve as the manager of a major-party presidential campaign, running the campaign of Vice President Al Gore in 2000. She serves as an adjunct professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department at Georgetown University and served as the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard University and as a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. She has lectured at nearly 250 colleges and universities on diversity, equity and inclusion; women in leadership; and restoring civility in American politics.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!