August 28th marked the 51st anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On that sweltering day in 1963, amidst an atmosphere of racial tension stoked by political indecisiveness, as well as acts of violent Southern resistance defined by bombings and bloody protests, 250,000 Americans converged on the National Mall. There, facing the Lincoln Memorial, educators, clergymen, entertainers, civil rights leaders, politicians and ordinary citizens listened to a day of speeches, prayers and song. They had gathered so that their voices could be heard throughout the nation, but one voice on that day would be heard above all others.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the last speaker when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. That historic oration is the subject of The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream, by Chicago-based journalist Gary Younge. Its four chapters brim with key insights and revelations about those troubled times,
Of all the commemorations of the March on Washington, the one that will best capture its spirit isn’t really a commemoration at all. Thursday, one day after the 50th anniversary of the great march, fast-food and retail workers in as many as 35 cities will stage a one-day strike demanding higher wages.
Sadly, the connection between the epochal demonstration of 1963 and a fast-food strike in 2013 couldn’t be more direct.
The march 50 years ago was, after all, a march “For Jobs and Freedom,” and its focus was every bit as economic as it was juridical and social. Even more directly, one of the demands highlighted by the march’s leaders and organizers was to raise the federal minimum wage — then $1.15 an hour — to $2. According to Sylvia Allegretto and Steven Pitts of the Economic Policy Institute,
Fifty years ago, just a year out of high school, I sat in my parents’ small living room engrossed by images on the flickering black and white TV screen. Something called the March on Washington was running live — the whole event, as I recall, which network television did in those days. I’m not sure why I was not at work or why I was alone in the house, but I remember that tears came to my eyes, just as they do now as I think back on that day.
My parents were originally from the South, but both grew up in Southern California. My mother had been born in Mississippi, moved to Texas and then Inglewood. My father came from Texas to La Crescenta. After they married and my father became a minister, Northern California was home, but the ethos of white superiority and other ethnic and class inferiorities were engrained.
This week we mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Few would argue about the importance of Dr. King in U.S. history and the decisive role he played in the civil rights movement. Soon after his death, a campaign began to have King’s birthday declared a national holiday. Over six million signatures were collected on a petition to Congress to pass such a law, in what has been called “the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday in 1986.
Fourteen years later, MLK Day was observed in all 50 U.S. states for the first time.
And in 2006, Greenville County, South Carolina became the last county in the U.S. to officially make MLK Day a paid holiday.
Growing numbers of private employers also consider MLK Day a holiday.
Last Saturday’s commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington spotlighted the power of grassroots activism. But it was no exercise in nostalgia. Activists are pushing for social change across the nation, and I discuss dozens of these campaigns in my new book, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, officially released today by UC Press. The book thoroughly revises and updates the 1996 edition, which the late Howard Zinn praised as “enormously valuable for anyone interested in social change.” The new edition adds my analysis of the strategies used by social movements around immigration reform, gay and lesbian rights, the Keystone XL Pipeline, school “reform” and other campaigns that really took off in the past decade.
While some believe the past 15 years have weakened the power of grassroots activism against big moneyed interests, I disagree. In fact, in writing the new book I realized that activism has increased since the original edition,
America has made progress on many fronts in the half-century since King electrified a crowd of 200,000 people, and millions of Americans watching on television, with his “I Have a Dream” address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But there is still much to do to achieve his vision of equality.
Fortunately, many Americans are involved in grass-roots movements that follow in his footsteps. King began his activism as a crusader against racial segregation, but he soon recognized that his battle was part of a much broader fight for a more humane society. Today, at age 84, King would no doubt still be on the front lines, lending his voice and his energy to major battles for justice.
Voting rights: Along with other civil rights leaders, King fought hard to dismantle Jim Crow laws that kept blacks from voting.