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John W. Boyd Jr. Headshot

50th Anniversary of the March on Washington: A Farmer's Viewpoint

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So much has been said this week on the anniversary of the March on
Washington, an event made historic by the attendance of 250,000
hopeful Americans and Martin Luther King Jr.'s poetic, immortal words
that changed this country and the world.

Yet, I wondered along with President Obama, "What does Dr. King's dream
mean today?" His words "possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in
our time," the president said, "gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of
millions."

As I attended the White House celebration of the March anniversary, it
was obvious that just my presence among celebrities and political
figures represented the enormous progress our country has made
toward justice, equality and all the goals the marchers sought half a
century ago. I was mindful, conversing with former UN Ambassador
Andrew Young, of what my ancestors would think of me, a black farmer
from Bracey, Virginia, there with the first African-American president.

I thought about what my Grandfather Thomas Boyd, a relatively powerless
black farmer, would think, or my Grand Daddy Lee Robinson, who died as
a sharecropper, if he could see how far we have come.

Yes, much progress has been made since Martin King gave his life for
justice for all. But still, so much work remains undone unfinished.
Today, as former President Clinton said, we live in a society where it
is often easier to buy an assault weapon than it is to vote.

Since the Supreme Court voted to remove important provisions in the
Voting Rights Act, North Carolina and other states laws have
hastened to pass laws that make voting more difficult. Clearly there is
but one way to fix this problem, one way to fulfill King's dream. We
must mobilize and organize as the March on Washington leaders did, to
remove from office those elected officials who would block fair
election practices from underserved communities.

Most Americans probably have a personal connection to Dr. King's dream.
I have watched his speech many times and even used his words in my own
speeches over the years. Any public speaker knows that he had a unique
gift, and moreover Dr.King was preaching on a vision from God.

Beyond the deep influence of his words, however, I believe I am a
living example of what King dreamed. No one believed the black farmers
would be victorious in the halls of Congress as they sought fairness in
federal lending. During the decades I spent lobbying Congress for
redress for black farmers, I was ridiculed for riding my mules,
"Struggle" and "Justice," to Washington to protest racial bias in USDA
farm loans.

Although I faced much opposition, there were no dogs or fire hoses
preventing my efforts to protest a failed bill for compensation to
black farmers. Instead the opponents were well-dressed legislators
blocking equal treatment for the needy.

As President Obama said, "there were those elected officials who found
it useful to practice the old politics of division, doing their best to
convince middle-classAmericans of a great untruth -- that government
was somehow itself to blame for their growing economic insecurity; that
distant bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit
the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant."

There is much work to be done. How can we rest when fast food workers
labor to live on $7.35 hour? We need better pay for good teachers,
fairness for bus drivers, and a decent wage for all who do the
necessary, but undervalued tasks in our society. Their low earnings put
more money in the pockets of the affluent. The gap between the rich and
poor is too wide and still growing.

The march on Washington 50 years ago taught us that we as a nation can
overcome any injustice if we work together. President Obama said
the March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the
mistakes of history; that we are masters of our fate. But it also
teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we
work together.

Today we have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellowship and
reach again for a common destiny. We must revive the coalition of
conscience that found expression in our nation's capital on one
bright, sacred day 50 years ago. Perhaps we can find the answer as we
celebrate Labor Day.