What happens when you compress all the news coverage of Black History Month into one week, and put it on steroids? This week’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Don’t get me wrong. It is absolutely fitting to mark this event, and to pay homage to the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech ought to be remembered. We should honor the years of struggle that African-Americans endured to galvanize a nation. Their nonviolent protests were met with beatings, imprisonment and death, and those horrendous events were broadcast across the nation. Television journalism helped inform the conscience of a nation.
But what was lacking in the commemoration was the acknowledgment that the strides in racial equality also demanded political power. As dramatic and moving as the civil rights protests were, the prospects for legislative reform 50 years ago seemed dim, at least until the Southern Democrats’ hold on the Senate was broken.
Ignoring that fact meant that this week’s events were more about emotion than strategy and leadership. The reading and viewing public got a big dose of memories, leavened with cogent analysis of the continuing legacy of racism. It was in large part, about sharing memories. NPR’s “The Race Card Project,” offered us an intriguing glimpse into the feelings of average Americans about black-white relations.
Watching the broadcast coverage of the event, one was struck by the tens of thousands of people who gathered on a rain-soaked day, the speeches, and the songs.
But here’s one concern about all that coverage. The March was framed as the one event that changed the course of history, prompting the passage of landmark civil rights and voting rights laws.
No one wants to diminish the March’s impact. It was crucial to the advance of civil rights. But the media ill serves the civil rights movement and history when it implies that speeches and marches alone change history. King, and his colleagues sowed the seeds for reform, as did the hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists throughout the country. And civil rights leaders were acutely aware of the obstacles that stood in their way in Congress, and used the media as a vital tool to overcome some of those obstacles.
But reform came about in part due to events that no one could foresee, and that dramatically changed the political calculus. Many historians, including the inimitable Robert Caro, have cited the assassination of John F. Kennedy followed by the ascendancy of Lyndon Johnson as major drivers of the passage of these reform laws.
Johnson used the memory of Kennedy’s tragic death to galvanize Congress, and he also turned his legislative savvy to find ways to overcome the fierce opposition of Southern Democrats in the Senate. The March, Kennedy’s death, Johnson’s legislative legerdemain, all played a major role in bringing about change.
If we don’t acknowledge the role of political power and leadership in either creating the conditions for racial justice or diminishing them, we are apt to demand too little from elected officials, and to think that change will occur through grassroots efforts alone, when political courage also is required.
Perhaps reporters found it impolite to note the irony of two presidents’ speeches. Former President Bill Clinton spoke about being moved by the 1963 March, as a 17-year-old watching on TV in Arkansas. But the March was about not only freedom, but also jobs – its organizers knew that economic security had to anchor freedom to make it real. Yet this is the same president who brought us the North American Free Trade Act, which some critics, including President Obama, claim cost this country hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs that were outsourced to Mexico. The loss of those secure, decently-paying jobs affected both black and white breadwinners, many with limited education, who lost a major way to advance into the middle class.
Likewise, President Obama deftly evoked images of those marchers of 1963 — the Pullman porters, seamstresses, maids, steelworkers, teachers and students who went to Washington to push for change. He acknowledged that jobs and justice had not been achieved for millions of Americans. But he spoke as if he were not the president, but an observer. He didn’t promise change, nor did he commit to making it happen during his presidency. Rather, he spoke as the organizer-in-chief, “We’ll have to re-ignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago.”
As I watched the live coverage on Washington’s Fox-owned Channel 5, the news crawl reported that the D.C. Council’s “living wage” bill will be delivered to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray before the end of August. The bill would require large retailers in DC to offer wages and benefits totaling $12.50 an hour, about 50 percent above the city’s current $8.25 minimum wage. It would have been appropriate for a local columnist to have suggested that the President, if he truly believed in lifting up the working poor, could start with a call to Gray, urging him to sign the bill.