New Orleans We commemorate lots of things in the United States like the Civil War and the Declaration of Independence, so it is a good thing to see real respect given and attention paid to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in 1963. There’s a nice feeling to the interviews in the paper from people we know who were swept up and onto the buses 50 years ago and their ability to share the experience. Marc Morial, the head of the Urban League and former Mayor of New Orleans, wrote a touching op-ed piece in one of my hometown papers of remembrance of his father’s role and the rallies and marches in New Orleans at that time. Tellingly he used his space to also revisit the issues of the original march and express his revulsion that Louisiana’s radical rightwing governor, Bobbie Jindal, has refused to allow the expansion of Medicaid to 400,000 low income citizens.
It is good for us to be reminded of how much is undone and how much of what was at issue 50 years ago has never been addressed. I’ve been reading March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights by William P. Jones. Maybe there are some errors here and there in the book, but Jones does a service in reminding how important African-American labor leaders were in the civil rights lexicon and in organizing the great march, even though they are often neglected. Given the polarity of these political times and the attack of the right on various organizations like Planned Parenthood and ACORN, it has been valuable to remember with Jones that during that period the NAACP was banned by law or court injunctions “from operating in Louisiana, Alabama, Virginia, and Texas. Florida had launched a $50,000 investigation into communist activities of the NAACP and South Carolina had barred teachers from joining the group. As a result the NAACP had lost 226 branches and nearly half it membership in the South and was forced to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees just to survive.” This is hard work. Perhaps people forget how hard, even though that is the nature of the struggle and the price of justice, so the reminders are good that simply put, not enough is being done.
Controversially, radio host and commentator Tavis Smiley, has called the administration and President Obama “weak” and “timid” on the very issues that Dr. King addressed. The Times quotes him in an interview saying:
“If you’re not going to address racism, if you’re not going to address poverty, if you’re not going to address militarism, if you’re going to dance around all three of them, then you’re not doing justice to Dr. King and you might as well stay home.”
Tough talk, but also the kind of talk that helped move the country 50 years ago when President Kennedy was trying to talk labor and civil rights leaders into cancelling the march. Rev. Al Sharpton makes an excellent point that Obama does not need to dream, but as President needs “to lead.”
I find myself packing for Baltimore this week to help moderate the founding of a coalition of groups that began organizing with the inspiration of King’s speech as their motivation to broaden community organizing. Initially they even called themselves the ESIMORP Network which is a mouthful, but honored King’s speech as PROMISE spelled backwards. Now they are naming themselves CROP, but the real point of their work and my being there is easy to understand: the job is undone and the work has to continue. We have to all keep marching!