40 Years Later, U.S. Still Faces Civil Rights Challenges

James Zogby’s Column

Washington Forty years ago, on August 28, 1963, 250,000 Americans convened in Washington, DC to demonstrate for the full civil and political rights of African Americans. The March on Washington was a transformative event, a watershed moment in the U.S.’s civil rights movement.

It was at that “March on Washington” that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. That eloquent appeal for racial equality was heard by millions and touched the conscience of the nation.

Much of the US was still defined by the legacy of slavery – an institution that had brought millions of Africans to America as slave property. Though freed a century earlier by President Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation,” African Americans remained trapped in poverty and a system of laws and customs that denied them equal rights and opportunities to advance.

The civil rights movement that developed in the mid-20th century was a broadly based effort to challenge the persistence of race-based laws that had come to define the existence of America’s black citizens. Whether north or south, most Americans lived with forced segregation in education, employment, and accommodations.

Many Americans have forgotten or simply never learned about the horrible reality of that period. Black Americans were not allowed in “white only” restaurants, schools, and neighborhoods. In many states, as a result of unequal laws, African Americans were denied opportunities to vote.

The civil rights movement, the largely non-violent challenge to this racist reality, had its greatest expression in the 1963 March. The coalition of African Americans, the organized labor movement and several major religious communities came together to demand change – and change was forthcoming.

Among the demands raised by the March on Washington were:

passage of meaningful civil rights legislation;

elimination of racial segregation in public schools, accommodation and employment; and

enforcement of voting rights for all Americans.

Immediately after the March, President John F. Kennedy met with the movement’s leadership. Following Kennedy’s assassination his successor Pres. Lyndon Johnson continued to press forward the civil rights agenda and succeeded in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and in 1965 pushed through the Voting Rights Act.

Segregation in housing, education and employment were banned and impediments to voting rights were removed. But change was not immediate, and resistance to full equality persisted and took new forms. So it was logical and necessary that the movement for civil rights continue as well.

In 1983 and in 1993, marchers were organized both to commemorate the 20th and 30th anniversaries of the 1963 March on Washington and to press forward the unfinished business of the struggle for justice.

Although Arab Americans were present in the early civil rights movement, they were present as individuals, not as an organized community.

At the 1993 March I used my speech to address the anti-immigrant sentiment that was threatening recent Arab and other newcomers to the U.S. I noted:

“It is a joy to be part of this great celebration of renewal. I and Arab Americans across this great nation who march with us today do so because we share the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We too have been the inheritors of its promise and we too will be the bearers of its torch for future generations. …
“We are concerned because today there is a dangerous current, an anti-immigrant, anti-foreign wave borne of economic hardship. It feeds on ignorance and creates intolerance and leaves us afraid. …

“Think of those knocking at our door and those hiding in our midst not yet speaking our language, experiencing the pain of discrimination and the burden of intolerance. Surely our great coalition must reach out to embrace them.

“They too are brothers and sisters … But sweep aside their fear, sweep aside our prejudice and see their hard work and commitment and their hopes and their belief in our promise. In every generation, they have been the spring from which we have drawn new life and new strength and a renewed sense of the meaning of America. …

“It is to them that Lady in the Harbor beckons:

‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, the tempest tossed, to me.’

“If we allow a wave of intolerance to turn her promise into hollow words then, I fear, something special in the soul of America will drown.

“Let us, here today, commit ourselves to the promise of Martin Luther King to all of our brothers and sisters, to stop those who would close our doors and turn us against ‘tomorrow’s Americans.’ Let us who are a part of this great March commit ourselves to an America of tolerance and diversity and freedom for all.”

And so with new threats to civil rights targeting especially recent immigrant Arabs and South Asian Muslims, I was proud to once again accept the invitation to join as a convener for the 40th anniversary March on Washington which will take place on August 23, 2003.

With widespread use of “profiling” against Arabs and Muslims and the continued fear of hate crimes and other forms of discrimination it remains important for the civil rights movement to confront these challenges to full equality for all in America.

Dr. King and the Kennedys have been taken from us, but the spirit that inspired the civil rights movement remains very much with us. Arab Americans will march in August, together with thousands of others from all races and faiths in a mutually reinforcing effort to make Dr. King’s dream a reality in the 21st century.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.