Marching onward: Fifty years ago common Americans made history

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The gathering on the National Mall 50 summers ago was about more than Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. When a quarter-million Americans came together on Aug. 28, they weren't concerned about impressing the folks back home who were watching on TV. They were in Washington, D.C., to make history.

Already, 1963 had been a brutal year of race-based tension and conflict. In May, King led a boycott to desegregate department stores in Birmingham, Ala., while police responded with German shepherds and fire hoses. In June, President John F. Kennedy sent the National Guard to stop Gov. George Wallace from blocking the entry of two black students to the University of Alabama. Then the president took to the airwaves to call for civil rights legislation and that same night Medgar Evers, an NAACP leader, was gunned down by a sniper in Jackson, Miss.

By the time the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was being planned for August, no one knew what to expect. The eventual size of the crowd was unprecedented and people of all colors, genders and faiths marched with dignity.

Instead of riots, there were processions and hymns. Instead of anger, there was resolve. The Americans who maintained their sense of purpose under the hot sun that day weren't victims of irrational optimism. They were witnesses to the inevitability of change, believers that the protections afforded by the Constitution were everyone's birthright.

The now-fabled march was not a great moment in American history because Mahalia Jackson sang in a way that moved many to tears. Nor was it remarkable because Martin Luther King made one of the most memorable American speeches since President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.

The march was one of the nation's greatest moments because so many Americans, with no guarantee that their voices would be heard, gathered in one place to change the nation's moral and political trajectory.

While King's "I Have a Dream" speech is the first thing that comes to mind about that moment, it was only one highlight in a day that changed American society. The men and women who gathered before the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago altered the course of history. Their hard-won legacy must not be taken for granted.

opinion_editorials


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