A Season of Commemoration: Fifty Years After the March on Washington

By Professor Theodore M. Shaw '79

By Theodore M. Shaw '79, Professor of Professional Practice in Law 

In this season of milestone anniversaries of the civil rights movement, we commemorate the fiftieth year since the March on Washington, now one of our nation’s iconic events. Most of our attention is focused on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It has taken its place among the greatest speeches in American history, and its most famous passage has come to define a collective vision of racial equality.
For many the March has become the “I Have a Dream” speech, and even their knowledge of Dr. King is limited to a few lines of the speech he gave on August 28, 1963. In the minds of most Americans he lives in grainy black and white footage, his powerful voice rhythmically articulating his dream of a country “in which my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The greatness of that moment and the power of Dr. King’s vision obscure the reality of that day, fifty years ago, and distort its significance, then and now. King’s speech that day could just as well be known as the “Bounced Check Speech,” for he talked about our nation’s unfulfilled promises to its black citizens, and their justifiable anger and frustration. But with soaring rhetoric and eloquent appeal he urged black Americans, no matter how justified they might have been, to resist the urge to drink from the cup of bitterness that loomed before them. He offered another vision that appealed, as Lincoln, “in whose symbolic shadow” he stood, said, “to the better angels of our nature.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. burst onto the American stage in 1956, as a reluctant leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the following years he waged a campaign of nonviolent resistance to and noncooperation with segregation throughout the South. In Albany, Georgia, in St. Augustine, Florida, in Birmingham, Alabama, and in other cities and towns across the South he and his colleagues met with varying degrees of success. But at no time was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the only, or the universally accepted, leader of the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was roiling, fractious, and deeply divided. By the summer of 1963 King had at least as many detractors as he had supporters. As he continued his flaming arc across the pages of American history, he had before him the Nobel Peace Prize, and more challenges, not all of which led to victories, in Selma, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Memphis. By the time he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King had suffered an irreparable breach with the greatest civil rights president, Lyndon Johnson, and been abandoned by many of his colleagues in the civil rights movement as a consequence of his opposition to the War in Viet Nam. 
Many younger black activists, impatient with nonviolence as a tactic and less committed to integration as a cause, had written him off as irrelevant and passé. His sojourn into the North, especially in Chicago, was nothing short of disaster. His planned campaign against economic injustice and inequality, “The Poor People’s Campaign” loomed uncertainly before him. At times he struggled with depression. At no time in his life did he command the near universal respect and seeming support that he won in martyrdom.
In August of 1963, as great as King’s persona and speech was, he was not the sum total of the March. The day began with the announcement that the great W.E.B. DuBois, a towering intellect and long-time African American leader, had died in exile in Ghana at the age of ninety-five. Among the crowd of 250,000 that day were a number of Hollywood celebrities whose presence was notable, including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Portier, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sammy Davis, Jr. and scores of others. Nuns, priests and other religious clergy were prominent. The crowd was racially integrated, but the overwhelming majority (estimated to be upwards of seventy per cent) of the marchers were African Americans. Black people came from all over the country, by bus, car, train, plane, and on foot, to march for equality and jobs. They were the “little people” who formed most of the mass of humanity on that day. Among them was my grandmother.
My paternal grandmother was, like many black women of her era, a domestic worker. A single mother at a time when it was a scarlet letter, she was poor. She cleaned white people’s houses, scrubbed their floors on her knees, washed and ironed their laundry, and cared for their children, whose cast-off clothes she brought home for us, her grandchildren. She was part of the generation of black women, maids and domestic workers, who were consciously left out of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal social security program. She had no health care insurance. She might have stood four feet, ten inches if her back was not bent from the labors of her years. One eye was milky and almost sightless from a splash of cleaning ammonia while at work; she never visited a hospital or doctor. For much of her adult life she did not have a bed of her own. Most of her nights were spent in the servants’ quarters of an employer or some other space at the home of a relative or a friend. Some nights she would sleep across the foot of my bed.
Early on the morning of August 28, 1963, our Grandma Hattie took a city bus and the subway from the Bronx public housing project in which we lived to Manhattan, where she boarded a bus to Washington, D.C. She had wanted to take me with her, but my parents, concerned about rumors of violence, vetoed the idea. It has always been among my greatest regrets. No rumor of violence, no impecuniousness, and no other obstacle would keep our Grandma Hattie, and hundreds of thousands like her, from marching that day. She was not a celebrity. She was not a civil rights leader. She was not one whose face appears in the grainy film footage or photographs of that day. But she was there, doing what she could to stand up for the cause of racial justice and against segregation and discrimination, and to make a better world for her grandchildren.
Years later, well after I had become a civil rights lawyer, I met Charlton Heston. He told me, as he told others as often as he could, how proud he was of the fact that he marched that day on the National Mall. I met Sammy Davis, Jr., and was struck by his warmth and genuine commitment to the cause of civil rights. I came to know Sidney Portier, whom I idolized in my youth. I am proud to count as a friend Harry Belafonte, whom I love dearly, and who marched with and did so much to support Dr. King. I would come to know and work with John Lewis, Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery, Dorothy Height, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and every civil rights leader in my time. I never met Dr. King; I was barely a teenager when he was assassinated. A few years after his death I met and became close friends with Yolanda “Yoki” King, his oldest daughter, and came to know much of her family.
I met Thurgood Marshall, and came to know Jack Greenberg, who hired me at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Constance Baker Motley, Robert L. Carter, William T. Coleman, James M. Nabrit III, Julius Chambers, Elaine Jones, and too many of the great civil rights lawyers to name. All of this came in the course of the work I did and the circles in which I moved as a civil rights lawyer. Yet, it is my Grandma Hattie of whom I am most proud when I think of the March on Washington.
More than two decades after the March, Grandma Hattie took out a packet of fading papers and other memorabilia. In it were mimeographed sheets of the lyrics to the songs she and her fellow marchers sang on the bus to Washington, instructions for the March, a March button she had pinned on her dress on that great day, a handbill calling the marchers to action, and other items. The button is among my most prized possessions, as is the framed handbill that hangs on my wall. My grandmother is long gone now, but she remains with me every day, and I think often about her presence on the Mall at the March on Washington.
As I think about the fiftieth anniversary of the March, I am cognizant that the crowds at the contemporary commemorations have been racially integrated but, as they were fifty years ago, overwhelmingly black. I have often reflected on the fact that most white Americans have seen, and continued to see, race as a black problem. Of course, if it were only a “black problem,” it would not be a problem. 
In the early twenty-first century, much has changed. Some African Americans have achieved a measure of prosperity and success beyond their parents’ most hopeful dreams. Changing demographics are reshaping our nation. Latinos now fill many of the jobs once done by black people. I see my grandmother in the Latina women who clean the offices where I work, and who care for the children and clean the houses of the privileged, among whom (however tenuously) I am now counted. Many Latinos, new immigrants to the United States, work in hotels, in construction, and in agriculture in roles once occupied by African Americans. Immigration is among the most pressing civil rights issues of our time, sometimes appearing to obscure the plight of poor black Americans. 
It is difficult for many Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, gender, and sexual orientation, to understand in “The Age of Obama,” the nature and the nuances of structural inequality along racial and economic fault lines. Still, black unemployment remains twice that of white joblessness; the call for jobs at the 1963 March echoes today. The Supreme Court’s recent decision gutting essential protections of the Voting Rights Act has cleared the way for a number of states which had been covered jurisdictions requiring preclearance under Section 5 to adopt laws and practices which will make it more difficult for African Americans and other minorities to vote. Stop and frisk laws and policies in New York and other jurisdictions have subjected hundreds of thousands, most of whom are black and Latino men, to warrantless and suspicion-less searches. Incarceration rates for black and Latino men are astronomically higher than those of white men who commit similar or identical offenses. Racial segregation and poverty impaction in public schools limit life opportunities for huge proportions of children of color, on whom the Supreme Court has turned its back. Housing segregation continues to be a hallmark of many American communities. Police and law enforcement “wanna-be’s” shoot and kill unarmed black men across the country in a continuing parade of tragedies. It goes on.
For too many Americans, the March on Washington was an idyllic moment in which Dr. King articulated a vision of color-blindness that forms the parameters of the “post-racial” America in which we now live. Those who attended the March were met with a brutal reality that shook them to their core two weeks later. Four little girls were murdered in the bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The struggle for racial justice continued. In this season of commemorations, their deaths remind us that our nation did not reach a racial nirvana then. Trayvon Martin’s death reminds us that we have not reached it now.
Fifty years later, our nation has changed in ways that would have been unfathomable in 1963. Still, Dr. King’s dream is not yet realized. Its call on our collective conscience has expanded to include economic justice for black, Latino, Asian, Native American and indeed for all Americans, including a shrinking white middle and working class. It includes social and political equality for women, for the LGBT community, and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and principles for the differently abled and the aged. 
There are two kinds of dreams: the sleep-filled dreams of those who wish for things but do nothing to obtain them, and the dreams that envision another way of being. Dr. King’s dreams were not the stuff of idle ruminations. Once I heard a friend, now a Justice on South Africa’s Constitutional Court, say, “If you want your dreams to come true, don’t sleep.” Dr. King knew that, and so did my grandmother.
Theodore M. Shaw '79 is Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School. For 23 years he was a staff attorney and later director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF). He is also “Of Counsel” to Fulbright & Jaworski LLP.