We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all. In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality. This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations: This bill will not protect the citizens in Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear in a police state.
Excerpt from speech by John Lewis, August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
U.S. Congressman John Lewis was a 23-year-old civil rights activist (born February 21, 1940) and Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when he spoke at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Lewis served as Chairperson of SNCC (1963-1966), an organization of African-American youth that challenged U.S. imperialism and identified the connection between economic power and racial oppression. Lewis’ speech on that fateful day is not as well known as Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech which was made on the same day and location, but it is just as powerful and passionate.
Considered the largest political gathering of the time with approximately 250,000 people in attendance, the gathering on August 28, 1963 was a defining moment in the American civil rights movement. The image of Dr. King delivering his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. is a powerful symbol and recognizable internationally.
Dr. King’s words: “I have a dream” have been used by oppressed groups around the world. Those famous words have even been misappropriated by some including the California Republican Party and the supporters of its anti-affirmative action proposal, Proposition 209, which sought to roll back the gains made by the civil rights movement.
The famous March on Washington gave rise to other marches including the Million Man March of October 16, 1995.
Forty seven years after Dr. King gave his speech the dream has not been fulfilled.
For a few hours on January 20, 2009 we thought that it had been fulfilled. However, as early as January 19, 2009, the day before the historic inauguration of the United States of America’s first African-American president, a group of mostly White Americans began a thinly disguised racist crusade against the incoming Obama administration.
Calling themselves the Tea Party movement, members of this group have been accused of indulging in racist name calling and even spitting on elected African-American officials.
On August 28, 1963 King referred to the fact that Africans in America had only been freed from chattel slavery 100 years before (1863). He reminded the world that Africans in America, 100 years after their Emancipation, were still second class citizens:
“But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.”
The speeches made at the March on Washington encouraged African-Americans to realize that, as Americans, the descendants of enslaved Africans whose blood, sweat, tears and unpaid coerced labour contributed tremendously to the wealth of the country, they had a right to benefit in all areas.
In the southern states where African-Americans were especially oppressed there was an upsurge of activism that has benefited generations to the present day. Generations of African-Americans (and others) have been inspired by Dr. King’s speeches, his dedication and determination.
Although African-Americans were not the main beneficiaries of Dr. King’s life work and tremendous sacrifices (Dr. Sumi Cho, professor at DePaul University has found that White women were the main beneficiaries of affirmative action), African-Americans were inspired to become politically active.
In April, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer and other African-American activists founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The MFDP challenged the all-White Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention (August 24-27, 1964) where Hamer spoke before the Credentials Committee of the Convention. She explained the position of the party and why the MFDP delegation refused to accept two seats at large, with no power to vote on any issue being discussed at the Convention.
Although the members of the MFDP failed in their quest for official recognition at the 1964 Convention, they exposed the violence and injustice of White Mississippi which disenfranchised African-American citizens (see video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-RoVzAqhYk&feature=search).
The MFDP and its Convention challenge eventually helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and even President Obama is a beneficiary of Hamer’s 1964 action.
Although there was not a similar struggle in Canada as late as the 1960s, African Canadians are woefully absent in elected positions at the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government. As the beneficiaries of those enslaved African Canadians who toiled in this country from 1628 to 1834, we owe it to ourselves as a community to seek elected political office to become members of bodies that make decisions that affect every area of our lives.
On March 16, 2010, I registered as a candidate for public school trustee (Ward 14 Toronto Centre) in this year’s municipal election. This is my third attempt at running for political office and there have been some interesting twists and turns, some alarming and some hilarious moments which I plan to write about after the October 25 election.
It is at times like this you know who your real friends are. I have found that I am blessed to have in my life wonderfully supportive friends and colleagues who have endorsed my campaign, posted my campaign literature on Facebook and in their buildings, distributed my campaign literature and generally spread the word.
On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke passionately about his dream. We all have dreams and if possible should pursue making those dreams reality or take the risk of what may happen to our deferred dreams as African-American poet Langston Hughes writes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?