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Reclaiming the Promise of the March on Washington

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"We've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition."
--"I Have a Dream" speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington

Martin Luther King Jr. and other champions of civil rights led the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to "dramatize," as King said, America's "shameful condition." The march sparked far-reaching efforts to finally confront the malignancy of prejudice, discrimination and economic insecurity in America.

The two years following the March on Washington brought passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The 1960s saw investments in programs to reduce poverty and increase employment, and to desegregate schools and invest in education.

There were many victories in this War on Poverty, as Linda Darling-Hammond has written. Childhood poverty was reduced to almost half of what it is today, and large gains in black students' performance throughout the 1970s and early '80s cut the literacy achievement gap by nearly half in just 15 years. But the United States has retreated from these efforts, and the aftermath of the Great Recession, and the dysfunction and polarization in Washington, have made things even worse.

Funding for Head Start and public schools has been cut, and today the achievement gap between high- and low-income students is nearly twice the racial achievement gap. The African-American unemployment rate is almost double the rate for white Americans. And millions of hardworking Americans can't work their way out of poverty.

"Their destiny is tied up with our destiny." --Martin Luther King

Much remains to be done to heal America's "shameful condition." Thirty-eight percent of African-American children, 35 percent of Hispanic children, and 22 percent of all children live in poverty. Many so-called education reforms separate children into "winners" and "losers" by design. Women earn less than comparably qualified men. Undocumented immigrants often are trapped in a permanent underclass. Unarmed youths can be "lawfully" killed if they are perceived as a threat. The right to vote is being limited for certain people and certain communities. And, while marriage equality is a huge step, many people in same-sex unions are denied the rights and recognition afforded to heterosexual couples.

As King said a half-century ago, many white people "have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny." Today, we must make clear that no person and no country can stand tall while denying the rights of others.

"If America is to become a great nation, this must become true." --Martin Luther King

The American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington declaring that the arch "is a strong call to all Americans to join the struggle for full freedom for all." Full freedom is not possible without a job that pays a decent wage. Full freedom is denied to those who have inadequate housing, who lack health services, and whose education is not a civic priority.

A high-quality public education for all children is an economic necessity, an anchor of democracy, a moral imperative and a fundamental civil right, without which none of our other rights can be fully realized. It's time to reclaim the promise of public education--not as it is today or was in the past, but as it can be to fulfill our collective obligation to help all children succeed.

All our children deserve great neighborhood schools; safe and welcoming environments; teachers who are free to teach, not just test; the arts and music; and the wraparound services that address students' needs.

A great nation ensures that every public school is a good school. It adopts and enforces laws to make "working poor" a condition of the past. It takes great pains to prevent any child from going hungry. A nation is made great by its people constantly pushing it toward opportunity and justice.

"Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children." --Martin Luther King

The March on Washington, and King's soaring oration, helped create a better world, but we are a long way from the world King dreamed of. So let us all take at least one lesson from King's example. Let's unite people of many faiths in a national day of prayer to end child poverty. Let's have freedom rides to bring the message of equality to states that regard immigrants and same-sex couples as anything less than equal under the law. Let's stage nonviolent protests in districts that fail to invest in public education and that close, rather than support, struggling schools. Let's use sit-ins to oppose "stand your ground" laws. Let's take a lesson from that moment 50 years ago: to be foot soldiers for freedom, jobs and justice, and to be a country that not only believes in equality, but acts on that belief.