09/18/2013 03:44 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

Reflections Since the Anniversary of the March on Washington

On Intersectional Analysis:

Associated in large measure in my mind with the 1991 Stanford Law Review article by Kimberly Crenshaw titled "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color," the notion of intersectionality reminds us that oppression occurs as a system of interrelated social relationships, among race, sexuality, gender, ability, and so forth. The discrimination that a black women experiences, for example, cannot be traced neatly to either race or gender (or sexuality) as if identities exist as accretions; rather, oppression is the result of the complex, multiple intersections of identities that form subjectivities in a social context.

This is relevant to the March on Washington not only because both women and men were present within the movement and at the March, but also because intersectionality is a useful notion as we reflect on the ways the March itself remained imperfect in its exclusions. Recent work on Bayard Rustin is crucial here in pointing to the role of people we have come to label LGBTQ in the leadership of the civil rights movement -- and of the march. He was gay and black and an activist for civil rights and gay rights, born in West Chester, Pa. And yet, most of us have not heard his name or recognized the role of a gay man in changing the world of race in the United States. I learned of his role only by reading John D'Emilio's book, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. (We might ask, alongside the writers at Politico, "What would Bayard Rustin do now?") And, we can join with President Obama in recognizing Rustin's crucial role, as he did when he recently awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

On the Role of Allies:

As we look back at pictures and in our imaginations, we recognize as well the role of allies. While the language of alliance bothers me in its deployment and in the ways some allies substitute their (or our) histories and actions for those of persons with whom they claim to be allied, the notion recognizes that social change comes from many. Iconic pictures of the civil rights movement show Dr. Martin Luther King marching alongside Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a crucial figure in the history of American Jewish life. A refugee from Hitler's Europe, Heschel was the rabbi Mrs. King asked to speak at her husband's funeral and walked alongside King at the Selma March. Perhaps more importantly, he was not merely King's ally: He and King were each other's allies in the civil rights movement and in the movement against the Vietnam War. Of course, Heschel was not the only ally present; while wary of the risk of replacing the subjects of the struggle, some have even called the role of allies "strategically essential." White presence cannot substitute for the role of leaders from within the African American and black communities. That is (in my view) a form of pseudo-alliance. And yet, the alliances were (and we hope are) real.

On International Connections:

Like the abolitionist and suffrage movements of the 19th century, we are wrong when we portray the civil rights movement as an American-only movement. The era was filled with unrest and the creation of complex connections between those working against colonialism in Africa and African Americans in the United States and elsewhere. Other countries experienced and continue to experience both racism and the challenges to racism of civil rights movements. I recently learned of a figure named Viola Desmond (controversially labeled by some Canada's Rosa Parks) and thereby learned of resistance to racism among Nova Scotia's African Canadian population.

On Young People:

Many of the leaders of the March on Washington were young. Indeed, they were very young from some of our vantage points today. King? In his twenties. So, too, were John Lewis and others who helped to ensure the March occurred. Among the 250,000 who marched, there were 10- and 13-year-olds and their young parents alongside more seasoned men and women, including some who today we would call elderly. This was a cross-generational movement. And, it is worth reminding ourselves that today's Occupy Movement is as well -- and that today's young men and women who work for social change merit our respect.

On Individualism and Collective Action:

Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were individuals. And, isolated events from both of their lives have been singled out to "stand for" the wider movement for civil rights. As we do so, we honor important leaders. And yet, we must be careful to avoid de-contextualizing those iconic moments. Rosa Parks did not merely sit down on a bus. She led a life informed by a commitment to civil (and human) rights. Martin Luther King did not do it alone. He did it with allies like Heschel (and the many others who walked alongside him). He did it with the leadership of Bayard Rustin (and other gay and lesbian persons of conscience). The March was a part of an international movement -- from Malcolm X's hadj to the movement of African Canadians and the work against colonialism in Africa. And, as the careers of leaders such as John Lewis (of the Student Nonviolent coordinating Committee and now congressman) make clear, collective action can and must be both outside of governmental routes and within.

This year, as we commemorate, we also educate. And, we also re-commit to the dream MLK had: a dream which has not been met. Civil rights of all kinds are under attack in our country. And this despite our president's race or his words today. Yes, President Obama's presence marks an important change. But that change is not enough. As was the case with the March many years ago, there is opposition to social change in our country. The Ku Klux Klan remains, and many other organizations and persons opposed to human rights. Violence is ongoing. And, the economy matters.

In all of this, education is important. And higher education is important. As reported in January of this year, segregation still persists in higher education. And that too is our responsibility.