WASHINGTON — Next week, the nation’s first black president, a living symbol of the racial progress Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed about, will stand near the spot where King stood 50 years ago and say where he believes this 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.”
The observances begin Saturday with a march from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial, led by the 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 tactics by New York police, and Florida’s Stand Your Ground 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. EDT to mark the exact time King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, with which the march is most associated. The events were organized by The King Center in Atlanta and a coalition of civil rights groups.
Separately, a smaller march, led by people who participated in the 1963 event and young scholars and athletes, will make its way from Georgetown Law School in Washington to the Department of Labor, then the Justice Department and finally the National Mall. The group plans to march behind a replica of the bus that Rosa Parks was riding in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.