As a co-host for “Keeping it Real with Al Sharpton,” a nationally syndicated radio show, I listened respectfully when a black caller questioned the reasoning for Saturday’s March on Washington.
Why attend another rally, he asked. Why call for another mass gathering for black protestors? Why bother? In fact, the caller said, Saturday’s march would be a huge waste of time.
Sadly, I’ve heard these same kinds of ramblings from other African Americans, some who are comfortable in their jobs and their homes, and others who feel that all is well in our so-called post-racial America.
On Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to more than 200,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech and the march were key moments in the American Civil Rights Movement, and today, 50 years later, even though much progress has been made, all is not well in our republic.
On Saturday, I joined an estimated 100,000 African Americans, Latinos and whites, who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and then marched to the Washington Monument because they are angered and deeply concerned over the state of our union.
There were elderly people in wheelchairs and on canes, and young people wearing t-shirts to honor Trayvon Martin; folks with jobs and those who are unemployed and looking for work. There were black folks without health care insurance and single mothers who are struggling to feed their children and figure out after-school care as another school year begins.
Roy Johnson (pictured), who traveled to the march from Queens, New York, said he was marching for his two young daughters who will one day understand the importance of social justice movements.
“I’m marching to pass along knowledge to my children,” said Johnson, 48, who works in the telecommunications industry. “I’m marching because I don’t want to come back here 50 years from now to discuss these same issues.”
One of those critical issues is voting rights. The U.S. Supreme Court – along with Republican lawmakers – is trying to dismantle voting rights for people of color; many African Americans – and black children — are living in poverty, the unemployment rate among blacks is still twice the jobless rate of whites; and conservative congressmen are proposing major cuts to Pell Grants, which many black students rely on to pay college tuitions.
Much has changed since 1963: more blacks own homes, more black students are graduating from college, there are more black elected officials than in 1963, and the median income for black families has increased since 1963. But it’s also true that there are fewer black-owned businesses than 50 years ago, more racial discrimination cases filed by African Americans, a surge in racial hate groups and multiple examples of increased hatred toward President Barack Obama.
Have circumstances improved for African Americans since 1963? Absolutely. Should black people now become complacent and comfortable? Absolutely not.
This is why Saturday’s march was critical – and that’s why I believe in marching for justice in 2013. Maybe I’m old school, but social justice movements evolve and are driven by the issues of the moment.
“Some will miscast this as some great social event,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, an organizer of the event and Saturday’s keynote speaker. “….Today we face continuing challenges. “Don’t act like whatever you achieved you achieved because you were that smart. You got there because some unlettered grandmas who never saw the inside of a college campus put their bodies on the line in Alabama and Mississippi and sponsored you up here.”
I also believe that marches are important for young people of color – our leaders of tomorrow – to embrace social justice movements as catalysts to get involved in community service and political activism.
“I’m marching for equality and equal justice for all people,” said Roy Lockett, who traveled to Washington, D.C. by bus from Chicago with fellow NAACP members. Lockett, who lives on Chicago’s South Side, said he is also concerned about gun violence in Chicago where more young black men are dying from gun violence than in any other city in the country.
The March on Washington also comes one week after many African Americans were angered last week by a rodeo clown in Missouri who wore an Obama mask and mocked the president. An announcer taunted the clown, saying: “We’re gonna smoke Obama … Obama, they’re coming for you this time.” He also called the masked Obama a “big goober.”
Unfortunately, racial insults toward President Obama are not unusual.
Since Obama took office, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted, “You lie!” inside the U.S Capitol during the president’s speech about health care reform last year. Wilson was one crazed voice, but he spoke for many. Obama has been called a “jack-ass,” a “dick,” a “monkey,” and a “tar baby” . Rush Limbaugh called Obama “Barack, the Magic Negro,” and conservative loudmouth Ann Coulter called the president “retarded.” In Arizona this year, white protesters shouted “Bye Bye Black Sheep” when Obama arrived for a speech.
Sharpton told the crowd that over the years, black civil rights activists died so African Americans could vote — and elected Obama as the nation’s first black president. Sharpton added that in past decades when blacks voted for Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, Bush and others, their IDs at the polls were enough. “Why when we get to Obama do we need some special ID?” Sharpton asked.
So if the black caller phones into the Rev. Sharpton’s show again and wants to know why black people marched in Washington, D.C in 2013, I’ll just tell him to review the video footage from Saturday’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial and let him figure it out for himself.