This week, we at MSNBC will be talking a lot about the March on Washington. It would not be possible to underestimate the power of the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. That image is incredibly powerful and historic, both in its own right and because, next Wednesday, the man standing in that very spot will also be an African-American and a national leader: but he will be the president of the United States.
That’s something the people who gathered on the National Mall 50 years ago could scarcely have imagined. It’s something many people in this country couldn’t even imagine in 2008, when Barack Obama was running for the Democratic nomination for president.
Fifty years ago, in 1963, this was a very different country. In April of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, where he and leaders like Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy were pushing for basic freedoms for black citizens over the objection of Southern segregationists.
In May of that year, Bull Connor unleashed dogs and fire hoses on civil rights marchers, including children, in Birmingham. And, in June, Alabama Gov. George Wallace kept a campaign promise to literally stand in the schoolhouse door to block what he called the “unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama” by black students wishing to get an education.
President Kennedy delivered his landmark speech on civil rights in June of 1963, and by midnight that same night, World War II veteran Medgar Evers, who had fought at the Battle of Normandy, was assassinated in his own driveway in Mississippi.
We were a very different country. The original March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on August 28, 1963, was a call to action—not just to citizens of all colors who were concerned about civil rights, but to politicians.
Fifty years later, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, including its lone black member, have gutted the Voting Rights Act, which passed two years after the march in 1965, states are rolling back access to the ballot box with voter ID laws, and access to healthcare for women and the working class is under constant attack.
We are, indeed, a different country. We have come a long way, but we still have a fight on our hands. So when you watch the coverage commemorating the march, remember that the call to action is political, because it always has been.