I watched all four plus hours of the March 50th Anniversary program on Wednesday, culminating in President Obama's excellent speech. He reminded those present at the Mall and those listening or watching on TV or their computers that the 1963 March was not about celebrity but about the people who came by the thousands to both participate or as the Reverend Dr. King might have put it "to bear witness." And for sure these were the true heroes of that day, many of them former and future participants in demonstrations of one kind or another or people just trying to move ahead — together. The President also called our attention to the stated reason for marching in Washington on that day fifty years ago: Jobs. Clearly, while huge progress has been made — as both he and John Lewis said pointing to their own positions — that particular goal has not been met. And it isn't that we have only fallen short, but that we seem to regressing not progressing.
As in 1963, the program had two parts. The first, started in the late morning with a group of warm up speakers and entertainers, many of them distinguished. At 2 PM, with chairs set up on the steps from which the 1963 leaders spoke, the main part of the program began. There was Congressman John Lewis, the only surviving member of the Big Ten, two of Martin King's children and three presidents: Carter, Clinton and Obama. It was an impressive, and for those of us who were there fifty years ago moving, program. But what struck me throughout the day was not who was present but who was absent.
Whether a symbol or a symptom of our divisive times, there were no Republicans on the program or anywhere to be seen. In 1963, as mentioned in my last post, Jacob Javits the Republican senior senator from New York hosted an after-the-March supper for the its leaders and speakers. Also missing was any formal participation of the Roman Catholic Church. In '63 Washington's archbishop gave the invocation and Mathew Ahmann, director of the Catholic Conference of Interracial Justice was among the Big Ten. Nor was there a modern day Eugene Carson Blake representing the Presbyterian Church and through it white Protestants. Two rabbis, Uri Miller and my father made prominent appearances on the podium then; no comparable nationally known Jewish leader was there to take their place.
In 1963, and appropriately so, the initial Big Six, was made up of major African American leaders, men who were all widely known to much of the American public. (It was pointed out yesterday that no woman was part of that group or a major speaker.) At March time four white leaders were added, two of them prominent clergymen. The now Big Ten was integrated, and that was seen as important. The 2013 commemoration in contrast was led only by black groups, spearheaded by the King family. Does that evidence a lack of support by the white organizations? Perhaps, but I prefer to think that fifty years on black organizations felt they could pull this off totally on their, a clear sign of progress.
There were of course leaders of integrated labor unions on the warm up program along with a number of white speakers. That said, the absence of religious leaders on the big stage was notable, perhaps a sign that people like Ahmann, Blake, my father and so many others are no longer on the scene. That is a whole other conversation. With regard to this week, it is important to remember that no matter how involved others were in 1963, the March was a tribute to and success of the six African Americans who started it. The crowd was mixed but majority black and they are the community that deserves ultimate credit. At long last, whites were playing a supporting role. That was a rarity then and sadly still remains so too often today.
Let me return to the most notable absentees, Republicans. I have no idea whether that is a function of their not wanting to participate or not being invited. It doesn't really matter because their absence shows how far apart Republicans and African Americans have become. Barack Obama garnered a huge percentage of black votes and he was, is and will always be a powerful black role model. A president who "looks like me" is something that could be claimed for the first time by black children. There is no way to overestimate the importance of Obama, the symbol. At the same time, a black Democratic president wasn't necessarily a given. The first black US Senator was Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts. And let's not forget that the great emancipator whose presence loomed over yesterday's proceedings was a Republican president. Republican support for Lyndon Johnson's civil rights bills was critical for passage and it was substantial. In those days, they took their Party of Lincoln slogan/heritage to heart and so acted.
Of course today's Republican Party, most especially in the South is made up of the sons and daughters of rightist Democrats and rebel Dixiecrats. The heirs of the segregationist Strum Thurmond have, like him, made the great party switch (or their parents did). For them, some grudging lip service paid Martin Luther King, Jr. notwithstanding, not much has changed ideologically. Just as an earlier generation stood at the schoolhouse door or hosted all those whites only lunch counters and restrooms, they are hard at work seeking ways to suppress minority voting and defund public schools attended by minority children. It's no accident, that the black president of the State's NAACP led North Carolina’s Moral Mondays. For many people of color as for Latinos, LGBT's and women, Republicans have become the enemy. They didn't participate in the 2013 Anniversary gathering, and those who did might not have given them a warm welcome.
Of course the leaders of yesterday's event and its main speakers — three Democratic presidents — aren't happy about how divided we've become. Not reaching out, not seeking to work together goes contrary to the teaching and short life's work of Martin Luther King, Jr. But it isn't only King's non-violent message, the one that merited a Nobel Peace Prize. Reaching out even in a time of war — the most costly in our history — is what the tall president whose granite image was strikingly present both in 1963 and 2013 was all about.
Remember what he said after so many bad things had happened:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Still pretty good ideas these many years later. They come from a Republican President, the one who in spirit stood beside Carter, Clinton and Obama. Of course, Lincoln would never come even close to being nominated by the party that claims him as their own. He'd surely be "primaried".