Few half-century commemorations raise as many complex and uncomfortable questions as does today’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington:
With a black man in the White House, has the dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., been realized? With American social mobility seeming to be stalled, is the American Dream a dream deferred? With nearly a million black men in prison, is the King dream a dream denied?
Why did the events of August, 1963, sear us all so indelibly? What was the power in that speech, and in that march? These questions haunt a nation that yearns to be post-racial.
We mark the 50th anniversary of Mr. King’s dream in the same year as the 150th anniversary of those other hinges of history, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg, and of the only other speech in all of American history that changed the nation’s character, the Gettysburg Address, whose anniversary is a dozen weeks away.
The transformation that Mr. King began — the twin of the transformation prompted by President Abraham Lincoln’s speech at a battlefield cemetery — is one of the most significant in human history. It is, along with the victory over four tyrannies that required one hot war and another cold one, a signature achievement of what once was called the American Century.
But before the self-congratulation becomes too hearty, let’s remember that this is not a “mission accomplished” moment. All this was prompted by one of the greatest injustices in human history, a stain on the American story that begs a different question, still without an answer: Why did it take so long?
From our perspective here in the second term of the Obama Administration, the turning point almost surely was the August agonistes of 1963. For it is almost certain that the spark that bridged the gap between the unimaginable and the inevitable was that March on Washington.
“That march was the ultimate mobilization of what had been going on in all of the cities of the South, the ultimate gathering that expressed what was on the mind of black America,” Vernon Jordan, the former president of the National Urban League, said in a telephone conversation this summer. “What happened 50 years ago is that it all came together and the world could see it and appreciate its meaning,” Mr. Jordan said.
It is difficult to remember today, when that march is a monument in memory — cast in stone, you might say, like the Lincoln and King memorials — that the genius of it all wasn’t only in its careful planning. It also grew out of the improvisation prompted by Mahalia Jackson, once so well known that it wasn’t necessary to identify her as the Queen of Gospel.
Mr. King was deep into his oration when Ms. Jackson, who had sung at a rally to raise money for the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, worried that he was losing his forward momentum. She urged him: Tell them about the dream, Martin.
Mr. King had given his “dream” riff many times — it wasn’t a new element of his repertoire when he stood on the Memorial steps. Then again, Mr. Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, with its Biblical allusions and rhythms, wasn’t a complete original either.
The result wasn’t only history. It changed history.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org