THE BLOG
08/27/2013 02:28 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2013

The Legacy of The March on Washington: 50 Years Later

Wednesday marks the 50-year anniversary when more than 200,000 demonstrators took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the nation's capital. The event featured the sweet folksy sounds of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, along with a galaxy of prominent speakers in front of the Lincoln Memorial, including: Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, and John Lewis before Martin Luther King, Jr., stole the show with his gripping "I Have a Dream Speech."

The reason for the March was painfully obvious: In 1963, on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, most of the goals of earlier protests voiced by members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in America, the United Auto Workers (UAW), and many others, still had not been realized with high levels of discrimination in employment, disenfranchisement of blacks from voting (most prominently in the South) and widespread discrimination in housing practices from coast-to-coast.

After the March, King and a host of Civil Rights leaders met with President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson at the White House to discuss the need for swift legislative action in order to put their dream into action. Many attribute the March and Dr. King's speech as being the seminal moment in propelling many of the Civil Rights acts that were passed later in the decade.

Not to steal Dr. King's thunder, but not everyone agrees with that assessment.

Gary Orfield, professor of education, law, political science and urban planning at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and co-founder of The Civil Rights Project, (now called The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles), believes President Kennedy's Civil Rights speech (delivered on June 11, 1963) and the shocking violence (in front of a national television audience) ruthlessly meted out by police during the Birmingham Demonstrations earlier that year were decidedly more significant than the March on Washington in terms of Civil Rights legislation. Orfield also believes the grassroots campaigns howled in churches along the highways and byways held more sway than the March on Washington.

Professor Orfield reminds me that the real breakthrough in Civil Rights wouldn't be realized until the Lyndon Johnson administration and his explosive influence in pushing through Congress the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In fact, Orfield argues, LBJ was the last U.S. president to champion an aggressive urban policy to address many of the tenets Dr. King and his followers risked their lives for 50 years ago.

Even President Barack Obama's cautious agenda in addressing the plight of Urban America has disappointed many who considered themselves among the neglected, marginalized and left out. "All he [Obama] seems to talk about," Orfield says, "is the middle class.''

Professor Orfield, who was a student intern for the State Department (based in Washington, D.C.) at the time of the March, didn't think the stirring speeches and call for action on that momentous day were all that inspirational in person. In fact, he left before King's speech to watch it on television. "The speech," Orfield recalls, "was much more impressive on television than was in person, especially since at the packed Memorial, it was hard to see anything, it was hot, unpleasant, and the sound system was not that perfect."

In other words, Orfield believes, King's "I Had a Dream'' speech packed more of a punch with those who watched it in their own living rooms than those who actually made the long trek to Washington. Another overlooked aspect was that King was the last speaker of the day; it was late in the day and most reporters were already writing their stories for their fast approaching deadlines. Small wonder, then, that the "I Had a Dream" refrain or even a reference to Dr. King himself was not splashed across the front pages of many U.S. dailies, including the Washington Post. Unlike other observers, the most powerful memory Orfield takes away from August 28, 1963, was that "most people in Washington had tremendous fear that mobs of violence was sure to break out. Most of the streets were deserted (except for the Lincoln Memorial), the National Guard was everywhere. People were ready for something awful, but it just became a joyful celebration."

One factor that can't be disputed: though many of the protests and pleas of many African-Americans remain unfilled 50 years after the March on Washington, the legacy and profound impact of Dr. King on American political culture is stronger than ever. According to Derek H. Alderman, Professor and Head of the Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee, as of 2010, there were 893 places in the United States with a street named for Dr. King, while the number of roads is believed to be well above 900.

The progress that blacks have made since Dr. King delivered his rousing speech on a blistering summer day under the Lincoln Memorial remains momentous. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of black elected officials in 1970 stood at 1,469; by 2011 it had leaped to 10,500. Additionally, the number of blacks with a bachelor's degree in 1964 was 365,000; in 2012, 5.1 million blacks held a college degree, while the poverty rate for blacks in 1966 was 41.8 percent, compared with 14.7 percent nationally; in 2011, the poverty rate for blacks stood at 27.6 percent compared with 15 percent, the national poverty rate for all races.

But clearly the most significant legacy of Dr. King and the March on Washington was the succession of Civil Rights legislation that would be passed in the halls of Congress, beginning in 1964.

What follows, then, is a summary of some of the most significant legislation.

The Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964, enacted on July 2, 1964, outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women. Specifically, Title VII of the CRA prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, while Title VI of the CRA prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs or activities on the basis of race, color, or national origin.; Title II of the CRA prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin in public accommodations.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, was designed to prevent the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South by prohibiting voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. Section 2 of the Act, applied a nationwide prohibition against the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on the literacy tests on a nationwide basis.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, specifically enacted to promote the hiring of older workers based on their ability rather than their age, protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age. The protection extends to both employees and job applicants. It is additionally unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on age or for filing an age discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under the ADEA.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA), which was passed by Congress in April, 1968 (after some prodding by LBJ) prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. The statute applies to both public and private housing and may be enforced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), DOJ, and individuals who file suit in federal court.

The Education Amendments of 1972 was passed by Congress on June 8, 1972. President Nixon subsequently signed it into law on June 23rd. Among the Amendments most prominent provisions, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs or activities, including a wide range of educational programs or activities, student admissions, scholarships, access to courses, along with the prohibition of sex discrimination in intercollegiate athletics.

The Rehabilitation Act, enacted September 26, 1973, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in federally conducted and federally funded programs or activities, as well as in employment by the federal government and by federal contractors.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), which was enacted in 1974, prohibits creditors from discriminating against credit applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, because an applicant receives income from a public assistance program, or because an applicant has in good faith exercised any right under the Consumer Credit Protection Act.

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) of 1974 prohibits discrimination in educational opportunities on the basis of race, color, sex, or national origin. Specifically, the statute prohibits school segregation, as well as the failure of a school to take appropriate action to overcome students' language barriers. The statute is enforced by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in federally funded programs or activities, such as financial assistance to schools and colleges, provided by U.S. Department of Education.

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) applies to labor organizations which represents employees in most agencies of the executive branch of the Federal Government. It prohibits discrimination in federal employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, marital status, or political affiliation. Specifically, the statute prohibits discrimination in certain personnel practices, including, but not limited to, hiring, promotion, transfers, and pay and benefits. In addition, the statute prohibits discrimination on the basis of conduct that does not adversely affect the performance of an employee or job applicant. This provision has been interpreted to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1986 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of national origin or citizenship status. The Act, which prohibits discrimination against U.S. citizens and legal immigrants but not unauthorized aliens, also protects individuals from unfair documentary practices relating to the employment eligibility verification process. The statute is enforced by DOJ.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability in employment, public services, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) protects service members' reemployment rights when returning from a period of service in the uniformed services, including those called up from the reserves or National Guard, and prohibits employer discrimination based on military service or obligation. The U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL) Veterans' Employment and Training Service (VETS) administers USERRA.

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), enacted May 21, 2008, prohibits discrimination in group health plan coverage based on genetic information. The Act prohibits group health plans and health insurers from denying coverage to a healthy individual or charging that person higher premiums based solely on a genetic predisposition to developing a disease in the future. The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) enforces the provisions relating to health insurers, while the remedies and enforcement mechanisms for the employment provisions are generally patterned on Title VII of the CRA.

Source: Congressional Research Service, U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of Justice.

-Bill Lucey

WPLucey@gmail.com

NOTE: This article was cross-posted from NewspaperAlum

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