Standing on the National Mall on Saturday, inspired by the presence of tens of thousands, it would be easy to get caught up in the gauzy, dreamy reminiscence of the summer of 1963. But we would do well to remember just how ugly those times really were.
On June 12 of that year, Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP, was gunned down in his driveway while his wife and children cowered inside their home. On Sept. 15, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair died when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. In between those two horrifying acts of domestic terrorism, and many unpublicized ones, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said during his speech on Aug. 28, 1963. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
Yes, the extemporaneous “Dream,” portion of King’s speech is what is most often remembered, but the bulk of his remarks were rooted in the harsh realities of the day. One of those harsh realities was that five years earlier on that very date, Aug. 28, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi, was shot and his body mutilated after he was accused of making a flirtatious remark to a white woman.
Simeon Wright, Emmett Till’s cousin, speaks at the podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, with Sybrina Fulton, mother of slain teenager Trayvon Martin, center, Trayvon’s brother Jahvaris Fulton, second from right and Trayvon’s father Tracy (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
At Saturday’s 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Simeon Wright, a cousin of Till who was with him that day in 1955 drew parallel’s between Till’s murder and the murder of Trayvon Martin and the verdicts that followed the trials of their assailants.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, who was scheduled to speak at the 1963 march, but didn’t make it that day, told Saturday’s crowd to reclaim the notion of “Stand Your Ground” changing its meaning from a law that gives license to kill those whom citizens deem a threat, to something positive and proactive.
“Make ‘stand your ground’ a positive ring for all of us who believe in freedom and justice and equality,” Evers-Williams said. “That we stand firm on the ground that we have already made and be sure that nothing is taken away from us, because there are efforts to turn back the clock of freedom.”
Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network coordinated Saturday’s march, questioned why voter ID laws have only become necessary in the era of the nation’s first black president.
Peter Sussman, who was at the march in 1963, returned to the National Mall with his children and grandchildren.
“When they ask us for our voter ID take out a photo of Medgar Evers; take out a photo of [Andrew] Goodwin [James] Cheney and [Michael] Schwerner; take out a photo of Viola Liuzzo. They gave their lives so we could vote.”
Sharpton harked back to the theme of the returned check.
“50 years ago Dr. King said that America gave blacks a check that bounced in the bank of justice and was returned marked ‘insufficient funds.’ Well, we’ve redeposited the check. But guess what? It bounced again. But when we look at the reason this time it was marked ‘stop payment.'”
They had the money to bail out banks and major corporations and give tax breaks to the one percent, but not for municipal workers, teachers or Head Start, Sharpton noted.
Sharpton said we also must work together to end violence and mysogyny.
“We cannot sit around and watch the proliferation of guns in our communities or any other community. Let me say to our young brothers and sisters. We owe a debt to those that thought enough of you to put their lives on the line. We owe a debt to those who believed in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves. We need to conduct ourselves in a way that respects that. Don’t you ever think that men like Medgar Evers died to give you the right to be a hoodlum or to give you a right to be a thug.
“We need to teach our young folk, I don’t care how much money they give you, don’t disrespect your women. We’ve got some housecleaning to do and as we clean up our house, we will then be able to clean up America.”
Sharpton also addressed the theme of the “dream.”
“They will romanticize Dr. King’s speech. But the genius of his speech was not just the poetry of his words. The genius of his speech is, the with bloodshed in Birmingham, with Evers having been killed, with James Farmer one of his core leaders in jail. He didn’t stand here and discuss the pain. He didn’t stand here and express the anger. He said in the face of those that wanted him dead that no matter what you do, I can dream above what you do. I see a nation that will make change if we pay the price. Others saw voting booths we couldn’t use. King saw and possibility of an Obama 50 years ago. The world is made of dreamers that change reality because of their dream. And what we must do is we must give our young people dreams again.”