Fifty years ago, during the great “March for Jobs and Freedom” in Washington, D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely implied in his historic “I Have a Dream” speech that granting Afro-Americans full access to the American Dream would not only revitalize the “dream” but would strengthen America economically, socially and culturally.
It’s a lesson some mean-spirited divisionists, sadly, have yet to learn. That particular march on Washington focused, rightly so, on the long-overdue need for black rights in all areas of living. It led to a series of landmark legislative bills in the following years. What the great march did not focus upon were women’s rights (more or less off the radar), LGBT rights (almost unheard of back then) and other rights: the right to health-care access, the right to clean air and safe foods and drugs, the right to a living wage.
Still, even though those issues weren’t mentioned in that amazing gathering in the nation’s capital, the event was a watershed and an inspiration for all kinds of rights movements ever since.
Has the United States made progress since August 1963? Only a fool would say no. Great strides have been made: the major Civil Rights legislation under President Lyndon B. Johnson; the integration of schools and public facilities; expanded opportunities for African-Americans in entertainment, art, industries, sports, research institutes, academia, housing, politics and more. In the early 1960s, to use the most obvious examples, the number of TV shows with black entertainers could be counted on one hand: Nat King Cole and Diahann Carroll with shows of their own, although there were sometimes guest appearances by greats like Johnny Mathis, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Little Stevie Wonder and Motown singing groups. It was the same in the movies, with black stars being rarities. Up to 1964, there were only two African-American Oscar winners: Hattie McDaniels as best-supporting actress in 1939 as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind; and Sidney Poitier as best actor in 1963 for Lilies of the Field. Since then, many more blacks have been nominated and a good many have won: Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whittaker, Halle Berry, Louis Gossett Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr., Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Hudson and more. Others have won in non-acting categories. One could argue, what do Oscar wins have to do with racial progress? Well, for one thing, while not a be-all indicator, they do show an increasing acceptance and admiration for genuine talent and a widespread willingness of mass audiences to embrace blacks and the black experience on the screen.
Ask any black person, and he or she will tell you there is a long way to go toward the goal of Martin Luther King Jr.’s great ‘Dream” speech. And, of course, they are correct. There is not only a long way to go, but just as concerning are the steps taken in recent years to roll back the progress that has been made in that long and painful 50 years of struggle. Some of the battles fought so courageously with sweat, blood and tears have to be fought all over again. Such battles include opposing the blatant efforts at voter suppression largely against blacks (see editorial on this page); an all-out assault in some states against women’s reproductive rights; efforts and successes at trouncing collective-bargaining rights for public employees; a Supreme Court decision proclaiming “corporations are people too” and thus allowing them to hugely influence electoral outcomes by funneling money anonymously; and an alarming trend in which a tiny percentage of rich Americans control more and more of the wealth in the country, which is eroding the American Dream for an increasing number of people.
The great strides made in 50 years, we are beginning to realize with increasing dread, are – alas! – reversible, given the current mean-spirited partisan winds of change. It’s comforting to believe this kind of politically-motivated regression will not long succeed, that human-rights progress cannot ultimately be stopped. However, history is rife with such unjust reversals. And that is why the struggle must continue in perpetuity.