Friday, August 28, 2020

Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement - Today on the National Mall

 Fulfilling our Obligations, and  Passing the Torch

"When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
Rabbi Jacob Prinz, Speech at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963
"I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution...."

John Lewis, Speech at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963
We in the Black Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 1960s held countless mass meetings in churches and community halls in Black communities throughout the Jim Crow South. On August 28, 1963, for the first and only time, we gathered before the Lincoln Memorial for a mass meeting on a national scale, joined and witnessed by the entire country. We called this mass meeting "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom".
No one who was there can ever forget it.
We were there.
With approximately 250,000 in attendance, and tens of millions watching on network TV, the March on Washington was the largest gathering for racial justice, economic equality and human rights ever assembled to date. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."
We are surviving members of Dr. King's inner circle, student activist leaders from the Nashville sit-in movement and Mississippi voting rights campaign and singers who performed from the stage at that historic gathering in Washington. Some of us 2 worked primarily with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); others were among the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Dr. Clarence B. Jones, as lawyer for Dr. King, and Courtland Cox, representing SNCC, served on the planning committee for the March with lead organizers Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph.
The March on Washington took place fifty-seven years ago today.
We remember it like yesterday. We remember Dr. King's iconic speech, as we remember each of those who addressed the crowd: fourteen of the nation's most important religious and moral leaders including eminent Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy; presidents of national civil rights, labor and student organizations.
With the death of our dear friend John Lewis, none of March on Washington speakers are still alive.
We mourn Congressman Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian, who died just six weeks ago; we mourn dear friends and mentors who died in the last few years, including Julian Bond, Amelia Boynton, Dorothy Cotton, Vincent Harding, Joseph Lowery, Jack O'Dell and Harris Wofford; we mourn our beloved Martin King, taken from us at the age of 39; and we mourn Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Orange, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Fred Shuttlesworth, Hosea Williams and so many others beloved sisters and brothers in the movement we lost over the intervening decades.
Our numbers are diminishing. Those of us who remain feel a heavy burden of moral responsibility. We remember the old African saying: if the surviving lions don't tell their story, the hunters will be remembered as "heroes".
We feel obligated to accurately recall the true story of our nonviolent movement to transform our country. We affirm the direct lineage from the Black Freedom Movement of the 20th century, in which we were immersed, and the Black Lives Matter Movement and renewed Poor People's Campaign of the 21st century which we profoundly admire, and wholeheartedly endorse and support.
For decades America portrayed the 1963 March on Washington as a symbolic apotheosis of peaceful social change, racial harmony and reconciliation. Yes, the 3 March was a uniquely powerful demonstration of the struggle for racial justice. But this struggle continues, as systemic racial injustice persists.
We feel a heavy burden of responsibility as together we face this moment of moral reckoning throughout America.
On May 25, we witnessed George Floyd's 8 minute, 46 second suffocation under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Just a few days ago, we witnessed police in Kenosha, Wisconsin fire seven shots at close range into the back of Jacob Blake.
At this inflection point in U.S. history, we are duty-bound to honestly recognize our failures as well as our achievements as a nation since Dr. King shared his dream.
"Power concedes nothing without a demand," Frederick Douglass insisted. "It never has, and it never will."
In August 1963, we came to Washington in the spirit of what Dr. King called "the marvelous new militancy" of the young Black activists in sit-ins, freedom rides, boycotts and marches throughout the South.
In the spirit of Frederick Douglass, we came in force to make demands.
Economic justice and a living wage
On August 28, 1963, we marched to demand an end to legally sanctioned segregation. We achieved this demand the following summer with the enactment of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Tragically, however, Dr. King's dream of a racially integrated society has been abandoned. Today in 2020 de facto segregation in housing and education persists, and there has been no progress in reducing the corruption of white supremacy on the allocation of resources to schools, or the distribution of income and wealth in our society.
Nearly sixty years after the March on Washington, the net worth of a median white family in America remains ten times greater than that of a median Black family in our country. A wealth gap of this magnitude violates the fundamental principle that 4 everyone is created equal; it can and will be eliminated when an electoral majority deems it morally unacceptable.
We cannot forget that the March on Washington was for jobs as well as freedom.
Fifty-seven years ago, we marched to demand a national program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed. Today, when our society suffers from the most severe economic insecurity and mass unemployment since the Great Depression, we renew our demand.
On August 28, 1963, we marched to demand a $2-per-hour minimum wage across the country, a wage equivalent to $17-per-hour today.
Today, in 2020, the federal minimum wage is a woefully inadequate $7.25 per hour. This is unacceptable, a return to the "starvation wages" John Lewis rightfully deplored in his speech to the March.
In a time of pandemic, our essential service workers are front-line soldiers, risking their health and lives for the health and lives of others. We call them "heroes," but this is hypocrisy, because we do not treat them as such. At minimum wage, they are forced to take multiple jobs, to push their family well-being to the brink. This is unacceptably dangerous for workers, and their children, and it is unacceptably dangerous for our society as a whole. We must learn from our failure to contain Covid-19 and from the unnecessary deaths of so many people.
We must treat our essential workers with respect and care. The least we can do is make sure that we pay them a decent wage that will bring them out of poverty.
We renew our demand for a national program of public works, and a living wage for all American workers.
Securing and exercising the right to vote
On March 28, 1963, we marched to secure the vote for all Americans. We achieved this demand two years later, with the enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Tragically, however, we have experienced a terrible, relentless backlash.
Seven years ago, the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder eviscerated the most important federal protection Congress had established to protect voting rights in states with a deep history of voter suppression. Immediately, many of states enacted legislation to curtail access to voting and suppress the vote, especially among Black citizens.
We urgently appeal to Congress to restore the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. We demand that access to the ballot for all citizens be guaranteed and expanded for all citizens in every state.
On August 28, 1963, we marched to demand enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from States that disenfranchise citizens. We renew the demand that our Constitution be enforced in the face of widespread voter suppression today.
In his electrifying speech fifty-seven years ago, John Lewis deplored racist systems that deprived Black people of their Constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.
"'One man, one vote' is the African cry," he said. "It is ours too. It must be ours!"
He urged all citizens able to exercise their right to vote to remove from office all morally corrupt politicians who "ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation."
Before Dr. King shared his dream of the future, John Lewis demanded that we wake up to the national nightmare of the present. "We must say: 'Wake up America! Wake up!'"
Every American has a sacred obligation to honor the memory of countless martyrs who died to protect our voting rights. Citizenship means nothing if we abandon our collective power of the ballot. Voting is our moral and political responsibility as citizens, and it represents the collective power we must exercise to save our country.
In this moment of national emergency, when our democracy is threatened as never before since the end of Reconstruction and the entrenchment of Jim Crow terror throughout the 6 South, we call on all qualified Americans to exercise your power as citizens to register and vote.
We applaud and support the urgent work of next generation voting rights defenders and organizers including the M4BL Electoral Justice Project, the Black Voters Matter Fund, and the student activists of the Andrew Goodman Foundation. Together these young leaders are fighting to secure our Constitutional rights and mobilize the vote in Black and other communities of color throughout the United States. We honor them, support them, and follow them.
"The marvelous new militancy"
We as a nation remember Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, as we should. But we must not forget Dr. King's urgent call to action on that day.
"In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Yeah), they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men (My Lord), would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. (My Lord) Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds."
In his speech to the March, Dr. King asked us to imagine redemption in the most concrete terms.
He emphasized that redemption can only come from organized nonviolent protest attentive to "the fierce urgency of now." Indeed, he warned us that "[I]t would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment." He meant it literally. "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights," he said. "The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."
Dr. King made it clear that our movement depended on the "marvelous new militancy" of the nonviolent student activists in the Black community: tens of thousands of young people engaged in lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, Nashville and cities throughout the South; the young people risking their lives on the Freedom Rides in South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi; the young people who came together to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the youth of Birmingham who filled Bull Connor's jails and desegregated the most racist city in the Jim Crow south.
Above all, Dr. King praised the young activists for their steadfast courage and unwavering commitment to disciplined nonviolence on the front lines of the struggle against racist violence directed against them, and he lauded the increasingly multiracial nature of their nonviolent direct-action campaigns.
"We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. (My Lord) Again and again (No, no), we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. (My Lord) The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people (Hmm), for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny [sustained applause], and they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
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