Once again the nation is revisiting the stark black and white pictures and resonant sound-bites of the 1963 March on Washington. The mythic image of that past created by the media over the years will be further magnified on this 50th anniversary by interviewers asking surviving participants how different it all was back then.
Well, this participant isn’t buying that cozy stroll down memory lane. By rendering a confident, assertive and, yes, sometimes brave political action as a historical feel-good look back to a time that we can safely lock away as “history,” we destroy the meaning of this action for “jobs and freedom.”
Don’t get me wrong. That scorching hot day in Washington is perhaps the most perfect day in my life so far. The walk from Union Station and hours spent standing around on the mall engaging ordinary people while the early speakers droned on was like a giant picnic. Like any good summer picnic, there were many attractive women to catch a young man’s eye.
It was also educational. The death on the eve of the March of W. E. B. Dubois, cofounder of the NAACP, was mentioned by one of the speakers and his very full and long life remembered. It galls me to this day that I had never even heard of W.E.B. Du Bois before that moment, despite supposedly having the benefits of a good education in all-white N.C. schools.
Then late in the afternoon when Martin Luther King began speaking the picnic atmosphere was transformed into a spirited southern revival. I agree with those who call that speech iconic. It was a soul-shaking sermon, although its edge has since been dulled by the constant replaying of snippets on ceremonial occasions.
Yet it was only after his speech when walking back to the train station that I encountered what still seems the perfect metaphor for that most perfect of days. Sitting quietly on the marble edge of a shaded pool in front of a federal building were a number of interracial couples dangling their feet in those peaceful, cool waters – so different from the torrents conjured up by King’s rhetoric just minutes before. For me, this vision of individuals enriching their lives, including such quiet moments of intimacy, defined the ends of a march that aimed to give everyone the economic means and liberty necessary for all persons to achieve individual fulfillment.
I treasure this happy, personal memory. But remembrance is neither history nor meaning. The March on Washington was just one moment – albeit a marvelous, happy moment – in the struggle for “jobs and freedom.”
At a time when economic distress affects too many African-Americans, Hispanics and whites, let those who would truly celebrate our history connect it with our state government’s decisions about school funding, tax “reform,” and unemployment benefits in North Carolina in 2013.
And surely one of the freedoms that the marchers hoped to achieve some day was to overcome the devastating problem of facing medical catastrophe without adequate health care coverage. In less than two months many uninsured North Carolinians will be able to purchase health insurance through markets established under the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”). Yet the same hypocritical leaders and timid public institutions that praise King on his safely memorialized day create obstacles to implementing this vehicle that will give many North Carolinians federal dollars to help them buy health insurance.
The same political leaders who championed restrictive voting laws this year also refused to make Medicaid a universal entitlement for some 500,000 of the poorest uninsured North Carolinians, despite the fact that the federal government would pay the entire cost for the first 3 years and no less than 90 percent of the bill forever. If voting and health care were freedoms worthy of dreaming about in 1963, surely we and our leaders are called on to act to achieve them today.
What happened 50 years ago is past and inert. But we give that moment context and meaning when we take action today to expand “jobs and freedom.” Making the Affordable Care Act succeed, despite all the faults of that law, is the most obvious short-term commitment to social justice. The struggle does go on today, next year and into the future. We shall overcome some day!
Dr. William Brandon is the Metrolina Medical Foundation Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at UNC Charlotte. Neither the University of North Carolina nor the State of North Carolina is responsible for the views expressed nor associated with them.
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