It is often said that "God works in mysterious ways." We as a nation are preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington. It was the march primarily organized by labor unions and the civil rights organizations to bring the demand of the nation's Black population, who in most parts of the nation and certainly in the Deep South lived as second class citizens or under the thumb of Jim Crow laws, for Jobs, Justice and Freedom. It was on the march on August 28, 1963, as a quarter million people lined the mall in Washington, D.C. at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, that Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. said to the world that was watching "I Have a Dream!"
In 1963 America, it was still legal to discriminate against Black Americans. We were barred by our race from decent housing, decent schools, decent jobs and equal treatment under the law. We could be dragged out of our homes and lynched without the rule of law demanding a full, fair, effective and qualitative prosecution of the perpetrators of such violence. In our cities, we were subjected to arbitrary arrest and disproportionate sentencing, while our families were trapped in America's ghettoes. We had witnessed the murder of Mississippi's civil rights and voting rights champion Medgar Evers, the jailing of hundreds of our young folk in the battle against Birmingham's notorious Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor and the vicious beatings in Winona, Mississippi, of civil rights workers Fannie Lou Hamer, June Johnson and Annelle Ponder by police officials. Yet, notwithstanding the threat of death for participation in the march, having to travel carefully, not being able to sleep in most hotels or eat in many of the restaurants in our trek to Washington, D.C., we came by the tens of thousands, so that the world could see our plight and our demand for our humanity and our rights under the Constitution of these United States.
Recently, I listened to a sermon given by Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, New York and Chairman of the Board of National Action Network, the civil rights organization lead by Rev. Al Sharpton. His sermon was about an infirm man lying on his bed by a healing pool waiting for God's angels to trouble the water so that he could be healed. However, because of his infirmity he could never get to the troubled water and therefore remained in his condition. One day Jesus of Nazareth came to the pool and, seeing the infirm man, asked if he wished to "be made whole." The man basically answered yes, and Jesus told him to pick up his bed and belongings and walk. The man did so and was made whole. The sermon reminded me of the heroes of the 1963 March on Washington; they wanted to be made whole, and so they got up, took what was needed, and went to Washington, DC.
In the 50 years since the 1963 March on Washington, we have made tremendous progress. Barack Obama, a black man, is president of the United States; Rev. Al Sharpton is the foremost social activist and movement organizer of the 21st century; Oprah Winfrey is still king of all television; Ben Carson is one of the world's most celebrated surgeons; the Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr. is America's first black United States Attorney General; LeBron James and Serena Williams are kings of the sports world and Jay Z and Beyoncé reign supreme in the world of entertainment. We can travel as we like; live wherever we can afford to live, go to whatever schools we seek and cannot be denied employment on account of our race. We can eat at any restaurant, stay at any hotel and, because of two recent Supreme Court rulings, marry whomever we choose to marry.
The Supreme Court rulings this past week declaring the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional and leaving in place California's same-sex marriage equity were giant steps forward in this nation's long walk to keep its Constitution a living and breathing document. However, as is often the case, as we take a major step forward in one area, we moved backward in another. The Supreme Court this week took a great leap backwards when it declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act to be unconstitutional and thereby gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by making it unenforceable with regard to the Justice Department's ability to pre-clear changes to voting laws or redistricting plans that may be discriminatory on its face.
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) is perhaps the definitive piece of civil rights legislation. It was born of the blood of martyrs and moved through congress by President Lyndon B. Johnson who came to office as a result of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Voting is at the heart of America's democracy and the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric H. Holder, Jr, Attorney General, may be this nation's modern Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott addressed the issue of citizenship; the voter suppression efforts now underway in states like Texas will use voter ID and proof of citizenship as the modern forms of poll taxes and literacy test.
God does work in mysterious ways. The VRA decision this week is a new called to arms. Are we, in fact, a healthy democracy where full participation in its electoral process is supported and encouraged; or, are we a nation in fear of growth and change and willing to suppress the rights of its people to vote and thereby reclaim America for the privileged few? The world will be watching.
As we gather at the Lincoln Memorial on August 24th of this year to continue the dream of those who fought for full equality and citizenship within this nation, the question will be, do we as a people want to be made whole? Will we as a people pick ourselves up and make it to Washington, D.C. on August 24th to let the world know that we stand for Jobs, Justice and Freedom? Heroes are defined by what they do in times of great challenges. Think Rosa Parks, think Frederick Douglass, even think Edith Windsor, the woman who brought the challenge of DOMA's constitutionality to the Supreme Court. We are confronted with a great challenge. Congress must fix the VRA and we must ensure that they do. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. in his speech at the 1963 March on Washington ended by exclaiming, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last." We must decide whether we are truly ready to make Dr King's dream an irreversible reality.
Michael A. Hardy, Esq. is General Counsel and Executive Vice-President to National Action Network (NAN). He has been involved in many of this nation's highest profiled cases involving violations of civil or human rights. He continues to supervise National Action Network's crisis unit and hosts a monthly free legal clinic at NAN New York City's House of Justice.