Organizers are turning the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington into far more than a history lesson — vowing to use the commemoration to push for voting rights, immigration reform and gay rights, and underscoring just how much the civil rights movement has transformed.
Spurred by recent Supreme Court decisions and President Obama’s second-term vision, advocates are championing a 21st-century list of social priorities ahead of Saturday’s gathering on the Mall to reflect on Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
“Dr. King’s words resonated not just with one community, but with many and an entire nation,” said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group.
Activists this week promoted a “big-tent message” that ties issues such as freedom of sexual preference and a path to citizenship — even for those who came to the U.S. illegally — to the commemoration of a 1963 march that focused on civil and economic rights for blacks.
Groups such as the NAACP have embraced the multifaceted message ahead of festivities, arguing that solidarity is required to prevent insidious discrimination and that cultural shifts have given a platform to women’s rights issues and equal treatment for gays.
Political and legal headwinds also explain why the progressive community has parlayed the march into a politically charged call for Washington to act on its priorities.
The Senate initiated debate on the nation’s “broken” immigration system by passing a bill in June that offers undocumented people a path to citizenship, more states are approving gay-marriage laws and the Supreme Court recently struck down a 1996 law that prevented legally married same-sex couples from obtaining federal benefits tied to marriage.
But a flip side has fanned the flames of activist angst in the run-up to the march.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, said the high court “gutted the Voting Rights Act” by striking down a provision that requires certain areas of the country, mainly in the South, to clear voting law changes with the federal government because of historical issues with ballot access.
The court’s 5-4 decision in June addressed a lawsuit from Shelby County, Ala., claiming the constitutionality of the safeguards enacted in the mid-1960s were no longer necessary in light of strides made over the past five decades.
The majority agreed, concluding, “Regardless of how one looks at that record, no one can fairly say that it shows anything approaching the ‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of the Nation in 1965.”
Progressive groups saw it differently, arguing that a black man would not be sitting in the White House had it not been for the clause in the Voting Rights Act, and that minority groups will continue to struggle if Congress does not protect them.
“When you codify discrimination into the law at any time, that’s a very slippery slope,” said Marvin Randolph, vice president of campaigns for the NAACP.
“What happens to [black Americans] happens to immigrants next.”
Whether undocumented immigrants deserve a chance at citizenship is one of the key battles unfolding in Congress this month. House Republicans are mulling measures to secure the border and grant protections to children brought to the United States unwittingly, or a compromise that grants legal residency status — but not citizenship — to adults who have entered the country illegally.
Mr. Henderson said that despite deep divides on Capitol Hill, his coalition has not encountered opposition to their bid to link the 1963 march for jobs and economic freedom to an array of modern issues.
“We may have come from different places … but we’re all in the same boat now,” he said, evoking a quote in which King referred to coming from “different ships” before uniting in solidarity.
They have found a natural bridge in the late Bayard Rustin, an openly gay black man who served as a chief architect of the 1963 march but remained on the sidelines at the main event. Mr. Obama recently decided to award Rustin, who died in 1987, the Medal of Freedom.
The White House said “Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”
That intersection is on display in the march’s host city, where the District’s Democratic politicians championed the rights of same-sex couples and immigrants for years before Saturday’s event.
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a 70-year-old Democrat and city native, attended the 1963 march and has applied lessons from the civil rights movement to the city’s fight for full voting rights in Congress.
“The mayor pointed out that Dr. King himself addressed this: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said. “We have a duty to confront all injustice, whether it’s the treatment of immigrants, discrimination against our LGBT friends and family, or the lack of representation for D.C. residents.”
Dick Gregory, a comedian and key civil rights era figure, said in an interview that the array of social movements in play now were spawned by the civil rights movement, when “the whole atmosphere around the world changed because of the underdog winning a victory.”
But there is a significant difference between the once-in-a-lifetime march of 1963 and Saturday’s festivities.
“Ain’t nobody scared,” he said, noting the vast number of black Americans who feared being stopped by police in their travels to Washington decades ago.
In that sense, he said, “it could never be compared at all.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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