28 August 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark March on Washington. The brainchild of A. Phillip Randolph in the 1940s, he finally saw his dream come true when civil rights advocates descended on the Nation’s Capitol to urge our government to address issues of freedom and economic equality. In the wake of the violence in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, John Kennedy proposed sweeping legislation, later codified into law as the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Randolph’s vision first surfaced at the time of America’s intervention in the Second World War, when he threatened Franklin D. Roosevelt with a massive march on Washington, if the president did not integrate the defense industries. FDR complied, issuing executive order 8802. Six years later, Randolph used the same tactic with Harry Truman, proposing a march if Truman refused to address America’s segregated military establishment. Truman, in the wake of cold war rhetoric, responded in 1947, ordering desegregation, although US combat forces did not fight in integrated units until the Vietnam conflict. Congress in 1964 passed Kennedy’s bill, largely due to President Johnson’s pressure, followed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which made plain that certain states and districts required congressional oversight, due to rampant infringements on voting rights.
Fifty years later, Americans still valorize King’s “I have a dream speech,” given on the 28 August. Many Americans mistakenly believe that King organized the March. Most have never heard of Randolph. More troubling is that the following year’s protest regarding voting rights receives little attention. Selma, Alabama became the focal point for civil rights agitation, with John Lewis and Bloody Sunday becoming part of civil rights lore. Suffice it to say, those voting rights protests in Selma, and during Bob Moses’ and SNCC’s Freedom Summer in Mississippi, led to change. When Representative John Lewis, the only speaker still alive from that March’s cast of speakers, commemorated that momentous occasion, he must have wondered how far our nation has come in the last half century.
Given the Supreme Court’s ruling this past term in Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated section four of the Voting Rights Act, historians need to grapple anew with the long term legacy of the Civil Rights Movement’s active phase, 1954-1972. As we reflect on the years since King’s oratory, and congressional legislation in 1964 and 1965, was the movement a total success, a good start, a dismal failure, or a catalyst for a growing backlash and re-segregation? King envisioned a post-racial society, when “content of character” would be esteemed, rather than skin color. As historians, how do we reconcile the past with the present? Should we adhere to Santayana’s maxim about learning from the past in order to repeat mistakes, or should we acknowledge that the flow of history is uneven and not merely a repetition of the past? The Voting Rights Act insured a measure of equality. The Supreme Court speculated that it was no longer necessary, given how far our nation has progressed regarding civil rights. How does history inform the future?