September 3, 2013

The dream that changed the world

Tue Sep 03, 2013

On Wednesday of last week, in spite of the pressures being exerted by the beating of war drums, Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States of America, made time to commemorate with millions of his colleagues, the 50th anniversary of one of the most eventful moments in American history.{{more}}

It was on August 28, 1963, that the American capital of Washington played host to one of the great events in the history of that country, the historic March on Washington. Set in the context of a still racially divided country, 100 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, bringing a legal end to the slavery of black people, that march was to etch itself upon the annals of history, not only of black people in the USA, but of black people worldwide.

It became immortalised not only because of the tumultuous response of black people in the United States, but above all, for one of the great speeches in human history, delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King. Best known as the “I have a dream” speech, Dr King’s presentation set out a vision for racial unity and harmony, an end to the vicious discrimination of blacks in the USA, and became the lodestar of the civil rights movement in America.

The outstanding oratory, the mobilising skills of the organisers in getting so many persons to congregate from all over the USA to Washington at a time of racial hostility, especially in the deep south, and the economic hardships facing the black population, all added up to a virtual miracle, underlining the deep conviction of the marchers as expressed in the unforgettable song “We shall overcome”.

The impact of that march was such that it underpinned significant social changes in the USA and, indeed, in those countries where racial discrimination continued to oppress people “of colour”. In spite of the assassination of US president John Kennedy, in November of the same year — 1963, the momentum created by the March resulted in President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act being enacted one year after that. Advances in educational opportunities, jobs and social services were also direct results.

Those advances continued, in spite of opposition and setbacks, through the next half of a century, leading to the historic victory of Barack Obama in the US presidential election of 2008, repeated in 2012, an achievement that few, not even the most optimistic among the Washington marchers, could have foreseen back in 1963.

For all these reasons, the March on Washington, and Dr King’s unforgettable oration on the occasion, have become landmarks in American history. He himself has become a national hero whose birthdate has become a national holiday. It is an honour well-deserved and in which we too should take pride.

Yet, it reminds us of many unfinished tasks. In that same USA, despite having a black president, the very voting rights won as a result of actions like the 1963 march are under attack. Black youths, like Trayvorn Martin in Florida, are shot to death, and in the nation’s biggest city, New York, black people are subjected to discriminatory police searches. Clearly the march is unfinished, in a figurative sense.

Commemorating the event not only pays tribute to the work of Dr King and his colleagues, it reminds us all that there is still a lot to be done to end discrimination and oppression on racial grounds, and for reconciliation, atonement and reparation for past wrongs.