Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song, full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sum of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won
Excerpts of The Negro National Anthem
—by James Weldon Johnson
“Lift every voice and sing till Earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmony of liberty…”
Whites and Blacks, young and old, rich and poor took to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial roaring demands to address the devastating plight of African Americans facing discrimination and income inequality. The marchers understood that the crisis faced by black men, women, and children were actually an American crisis wedded together and born out of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. Such evils robbed all people, both Blacks and Whites, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. Together, they sang in harmony to redress old grievances affecting Black life.
Their marching orders were clear: they demanded an end to discrimination. They demanded a comprehensive civil rights legislation to guarantee all Americans with access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote. They gathered to demand the enforcement of the 14th Amendment—reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised; and a national minimum wage act that would give all Americans a decent standard of living. They demanded a Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal government, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions. Together, they raised their voices at the listening sky in a fierce demand of liberty.
“Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies; Let it resound loud as the roaring sea…”
On the hot summer’s day of August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people gathered to lift their voices making history as they stormed the nation’s capitol known today as the “March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom.” Ten brave organizers served as hosts: Mathew Ahmann, Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; Reverend Eugene Carson Blake, Vice-Chairman of the Commission on Race Relations of the National Council of Churches of Christ in America; James Farmer, National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality; Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Chairman of the American Jewish Congress; A. Philip Randolph, President of the Negro American Labor Council; Walter Reuther, President of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, AFL-CIO, and Chairman, Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO; Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and Whitney Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League.
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us…”
1963 was part of a dark past in American history. Black, grown men and women were stripped of their dignity under oppressive laws of Jim Crow segregation. It wasn’t the sign over the bathroom door bearing the words, “colored only” that caused the pain—it was the meaning given behind those words; a constant reminder of the hatred from Whites being forced to breathe the same air as Blacks, or touch the same items– that made the practice unbearable. 1963 was a dark past because Blacks faced barriers to the ballot due to rampant voting discrimination and poll taxes. The1964 Presidential election, had a Black turnout 58.5%, compared to a White turnout of 70.7%. Members of Congress were practically non-existent. In 1963, there were merely five representatives, and absolutely zero senators. The poor were falling through the cracks of society. Black home ownership in 1960 was at a low 38.1% compared to White home ownership at 64.3%. The average weekly salary in 1964 stood at a low $312.68 (earnings, adjusted for inflation).
“Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us…”
Out from a gloomy past, till now we stand at last– fifty years later, We celebrate the success of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom giving birth to the iconic civil rights movement. In January 1964, President L.B. Johnson initiated the War on Poverty, and later that year, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the 70’s we witnessed government job-training programs ushering Black families into the middle-class. By 1978, the Black median income rose to 58% of the white median income. The number of Blacks in Congress went from five to a present day 43. Because of the success of the March, and the demands of freedom and jobs, we now have the first African American President; we now have Black high school graduation rates as high as 85% compared to the 25.7% found fifty years ago.
Our reflection on our accomplishments is, rightfully, a source of pride. However, today’s current plight of Blacks in America shows that we still have a lot of work to do. Today more than ever, we must remember the urgency of now– we must march onward.
Voter suppression efforts are real and damaging to the progress made in ending Black voter disenfranchisement in the south. Recently, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was attacked, taking away government protection for Blacks living in states who have a history of passing racially discriminatory voting laws.
Worse yet, improvements made toward ending income inequality are sparse. Today, the average weekly salary is $292.51 (earnings, adjusted for inflation). That’s worse than where America stood fifty years ago. High and disparate unemployment rates for Blacks have persisted since the reported end of the Great Recession. When Blacks do get jobs, they are often not paid living wages. Two years into the recovery, the number of minimum wage workers increased by 17% for Blacks as compared to 5% for Whites. Moreover, unemployment and underemployment contribute to the widening racial wealth divide. Median wealth ratios measure White wealth for every dollar of wealth for Blacks. In 1995, the ratio of White to Black wealth was 7-to-1. In 2004, it was 11-to-1; by 2009, it had ballooned to a disastrous 19-to-1. While wealth was lost across the board from the Great Recession, it was significantly more damaging for Blacks. From 2005 to 2009, White median net worth fell 16% to $113,149; but, net worth fell by 53% for Blacks to $12,124.
“Facing the rising sun of a new day begun; Let us march on till victory is won!”
Clearly, the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made at the march has yet to become a reality. The demands made by A. Philip Randolph for a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living has yet to be fulfilled. The victory sought by John Lewis to withhold federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists has yet to be celebrated. Access to decent housing, adequate education, and the right to vote must still be attained. So let us march onward.
Let us march on till Stop and Frisk policies are overturned;
Let us march on till Stand Your Ground laws are brought down;
Let us march on till we educate not incarcerate Black children;
Let us march on till Black families have access to affordable healthcare;
Let us march on till we achieve living wage jobs;
Let us march on till the economic wealth gap is closed;
Let us march on till everyone pays their fair share in taxes;
Let us march on till immigrants have a clear path to citizenship;
Let us march on till we end the death penalty;
Let us march on for jobs, justice, freedom and equality;
Let us march on till victory is won!