Wednesday, August 28, 2013

MICHAEL BELL: Reflecting on 50 Years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The author of this post is Michael Bell, senior pastor, Greater Saint Stephen First Church, Fort Worth, Texas, and a member of the T. B. Maston Foundation Board of Trustees, who has written on this subject for the Foundation's Weighty Matters blog, at my request. In 2005, Michael Bell became the first African-American elected president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.)

On August 28, 1963, tens of thousands of marchers assembled on the Washington Mall. Police estimated the crowd to be around 250,000, but others argued that the crowd numbered as many as half a million. The occasion was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was organized by a coalition of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations; though coalition members differed on the purpose of the march, when all was said and done, they agreed on a set of objectives, which included, among other things, advocating the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation and the elimination of racial segregation in public schools.

For better or for worse, the March is best known as the venue where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. And I lament, along with Gary Younge, that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington have been “neatly folded into America’s patriotic mythology.”

Also, Dr. King’s speech has been packaged in a way that excludes his legacy beyond that distant day when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In his book Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Dr. Vincent Harding – Dr. King’s friend, colleague, and former speechwriter – asserts that the post-March-on-Washington phase of King’s life has been conveniently overlooked. Gary Younge agrees: “To judge a life as full and complex as his by one sixteen-minute address, some of which was delivered extemporaneously, is neither respectful nor serious.”

So, from where I sit, to talk about how race relations have fared since King’s August 28, 1963, speech, given the misinformation inherent in the reshaping of King’s image, is not an honest discussion. A more constructive and helpful conversation may be how race relations have fared since the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. And I’m going to fight the feeling to offer the obvious answers, because studies, reports, and findings by – among others – the Economic Policy Institute, Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for American Progress have already provided irrefutable evidence that the fight for racial justice and equality has stalled out.

And I wish I could say that I’m surprised that a half-century after the March, we’re still what David Shipler calls “a country of strangers.” But I’m not. Andrew Hacker’s conclusion, published just over twenty years ago, that we are “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal” is still on point.

Over the past forty years, I’ve been on the frontlines of countless marches, pickets, demonstrations, and rallies for racial justice; I’ve organized, led, and participated in boycotts and protests across Texas and in other states. As recently as last week, I sat down with the elected and appointed leadership of a large Texas city and advocated on behalf of Black police officers who are being bullied, passed over, harassed, and intimidated by their own police chief and the predominantly White police officers' association to which they pay dues. Frankly, the angst and frustration that racism generated in the past still exists, despite some notable advances toward equality. And there has not been enough significant progress toward Black freedom and liberation to overcome the lingering systemic racial separateness that permeates every aspect of both public and private life in America.

Younge notes, in his article Obama and Black Americans: the Paradox of Hope, that today “racial advancement is increasingly understood not as a process of social change but of individual promotion – the elevation of African American faces to high places.” And I don’t see evidence of any meaningful, sustainable effort to move this country away from its racialistic moorings. I’m convinced that White denial and Black dualism will continue to hold sway and inhibit any real national dialogue or community conversation on race. The subtle, stealth-like racism that is both vehemently denied and incessantly practiced in 21st-century America has become normative.

But none of this means that those of us who refuse to buckle under the unrelenting constraint of the system of race will stop fighting. So, five decades later, the struggle continues!