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50 years ago, the world was changed. The struggle over civil rights had been raging on since before the American Civil War, but August 28, 1963 and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom shifted the nation forever.
200 to 300 thousand people from all over the country and from all different backgrounds filled the National Mall in Washington, DC to stand for social justice, equal protection under the law, and equal rights in the public sphere. Civil rights groups, labor unions, religious leaders all came together to make a stand and say enough is enough.
At a time when segregation, discrimination and the Jim Crow South ruled politics and society, the time was ripe for action and change. Years in the making, and with the blood, sweat, and tears of activists, organizers, and everyday people, 1963 was a pivotal point American history. The media paid attention, politicians paid attention, and the world paid attention to the oppression faced by African Americans.
On August 28, 1963, the air was filled with excitement, demands for progress, and a call to radically change society. The day included a massive march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and musicians playing their songs for freedom. Likely most remembered about the March on Washington were the speeches given by the “Big Six” of the American Civil Rights Movement. These included Labor leader, A. Phillip Randolph, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality James Farmer, civil rights icons Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, the young president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee John Lewis, and, as most may know, the great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All spoke that day and all gave voice to progress, freedom, and justice.
While the March on Washington is most often remembered for Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” calling for the end to racial discrimination in the United States, the rally also called for economic justice. The organizers insisted on better jobs, more economic opportunities, and for workers to be able to work in a safe and just environment. At the time, there was still so much to be done. Great strides in the struggle for justice were just beginning to take shape. But with the March on Washington, the opportunity was there. In the coming years, landmark legislation passed that began to ensure equality for all. 1964 saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion and sex. 1965 is remembered for the Voting Rights Act, which ended discrimination in the voting booth, effectively giving all Americans a more equal opportunity to have a political voice.
50 years later, we look back on where we have been and the obstacles we have overcome. We must remember those that have laid down the tracks before us, those that have paid the greatest price for freedom, equality and social justice.
As a nation, we have come a long way in regards to Civil Rights, but there is still so much work to be done. Even in regards to the March on Washington in 1963, equality was not fully represented for everyone. Specifically, I am referring to the role that women have played in the fight for freedom all over the world. While there was only one official female speaker, Josephine Baker, on the playbill in 1963, women played as much of a pivotal role in the fight for justice and equality as men did.
And on that point, I want to look forward. Our communities, our country, and our world are still plagued with vast inequities. Women all over the world do not enjoy the same rights as men. In the United States, women are still not afforded the same opportunities in the workplace. While strides have been made in the fight over LGBTQ rights, there is still so much work left to be done and there is still vast amount of discrimination to end. Immigrants in the US are still seen as criminals and second-class citizens, despite the fact that they are only working for a better future for themselves and their families.
Though 50 years have passed, civil rights remains as a monumental issue to overcome. Discrimination, hatred, and segregation may be more closeted today than it was in years gone by, but that does not mean it no longer exists. We all must stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers, to stand with the oppressed, and bring about social justice for all.
My guest today is the last living member of the “Big Six” of the 1960’s Civil Rights, and a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Congressman John Lewis.