We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. -Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (August 28, 1963).
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I’d like to say that I spent my day at the edge of my seat watching the news coverage and the live streaming…but I didn’t. I spent most of my day watching my three week old niece cry, sleep and overall just be adorable.
While the television wasn’t on I did follow my Twitter feed, read reactions on Facebook, and read transcripts of the speeches by Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama. This morning I listened to the short remarks by the only still living speaker from that day in 1963: Representative John Lewis.
“Come and Walk in My Shoes”
If you haven’t had a chance to read John Lewis’ memoir “Walking with the Wind” I recommend you add it to your book list. He is just one example of many Americans who took a risk to change their world, whatever the cost or personal threat. Walking in his shoes means riding buses, being beaten, and practicing civil disobedience while not accepting the status quo.
I’m looking at my niece and thinking about what a different world this might have been if it weren’t for leaders like John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. If it weren’t for those numerous individuals who took buses and cars and drove up to the capital to show in force that they were marching for jobs and freedom.
In his speech Bill Clinton talked about how the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other important legislation of that time flowed from the March on Washington, and I salute those that made that happen.
“We All Live in the Same House”
Each of the speeches yesterday followed the same general format. Look back. Take Stock. What’s Next. It’s often the only way to assess legacies. To see if we were successful in living up to the dream and how much work we have left to do.
But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether it’s by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails — (applause) — it requires vigilance.
Lewis told us what changed since 1963 and then reminded us what hasn’t. That we need to remember we are all in the same house, that everything that happens from here on out will affect all of us.
“Stand Up, Speak Up, Speak Out, and Find A Way to Get in the Way”
Advocating today is so much easier than it used to be. You can sign a petition, send a tweet, send a pre-written email at the drop of a hat. Yesterday was a reminder that sometimes you needed to do more. You needed to physically move mountains.
This summer the Supreme Court took stock of that legacy and voted down one of the critical portions of the Voting Rights Act. They asked Congress to adjust the formula to address voting laws across the country and not just the pre-designated districts. To have a law and a formula that will apply to all districts in the United States will require more than just a tweet, or a Facebook post. It will require us to show up.
We’ve been awash in anniversaries this year. Civil War to Civil Rights. Not a straight line by any means. Not an easy line, and one filled with death, loss, and false starts. It is a line that continues on and yesterday we had an opportunity to look back on the 50th anniversary of an event that (to paraphrase Bill Clinton) “changed America.”
The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate.
But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago.-President Obama (August 28, 2013)