Threats to Racial Justice Persist Six Decades After the March on Washington


Edith Lee Payne at the August 28, 1963, March on Washington.

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Today, the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, is an occasion to reflect on the widespread and often violent opposition to racial equality and civil rights that surrounded that landmark event and to recognize the parallels that persist today.

In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and several prominent civil rights leaders were arrested in Birmingham and placed in the Birmingham City Jail, where they were subjected to poor conditions and harsh treatment. Dr. King seized the moment to challenge critics, including many white clergy, who condemned the urgency of the civil rights movement in his now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

In June 1963, segregationist leader and Alabama Gov. George Wallace received widespread support from white people in Alabama when he defied federal orders to desegregate public schools by physically blocking two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling at the University of Alabama.

Two months later, on August 28, 1963, Dr. King and civil rights groups organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Attended by some 250,000 people from across the nation, the demonstration became a galvanizing moment in the civil rights movement.

Best known as the setting for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the March on Washington made civil rights and racial equality a national issue and put pressure on Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The March on Washington shifted public perceptions about the civil rights movement and its leaders, who were reviled by elected officials as criminals and law breakers and routinely targeted by Southern law enforcement throughout the civil rights movement. Dr. King himself was arrested, jailed, and fined more than 25 times for participating in boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and other nonviolent protests.

Today’s anniversary reminds many of the vision of racial justice and civil rights that Dr. King dreamed of—but also highlights the continuing struggle to overcome persistent bigotry, discrimination, and opposition to racial justice.

Despite the success of the march, violent opposition to civil rights and racial equality continued.

On September 15, 1963, four Black children were killed at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham when opponents of civil rights exploded a bomb at the church before Sunday services.

Congress delayed another year before enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and another year after that before passing the Voting Rights Act, which officials in Alabama and other states continue to challenge today.

On the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, there are new threats to racial justice, as many want to restrict, silence, or ban voices and perspectives that present America’s history of racial inequality. A new wave of animosity toward programs that seek to remedy past discrimination is pervasive.

This weekend, a white man who had been taught to hate people who are Black went into a store and murdered three people simply because they were Black. Before killing himself, he published racist writings of the type that are increasingly tolerated by many pundits and elected officials.

The long history of violent racial bigotry in the U.S. also persists today, nearly 70 years after the August 28, 1955, murder of Emmett Till by white men in Mississippi who were never held accountable and were even celebrated by some for their racial violence.

The March on Washington represented an effort by a diverse group of people to compel this nation to commit to ending racial injustice in America. It was a call to action to address the legacy of slavery, confront racial resentment and discrimination, and end the longstanding inequality created by racial animus.

The commitment to freedom, equality, and justice that the March on Washington asked this nation to make is as urgently needed today as it was 60 years ago.