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Last modified: Friday, August 23, 2013

Indiana University experts comment on 50th anniversary of March on Washington

Aug. 23, 2013

Wednesday, Aug. 28, marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a landmark event in the U.S. civil rights movement and the setting for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Experts at Indiana University are available to comment on the march and its significance for contemporary America.

The following themes are addressed:

March had diverse meanings for different participants
Anniversary brings joy and pain
A long way to go
A legacy of 'soul force'
Issues raised by movement remain pertinent

March had diverse meanings for different participants

Carlton Mark Waterhouse

Carlton Mark Waterhouse

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The March on Washington stands today as a symbol of racial harmony and the power of nonviolent protest, exemplified by King's famous speech. But in 1963 it had diverse meanings for the different groups and more than 200,000 people who participated, says Carlton Mark Waterhouse, professor of law in the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.

  • Civil rights pioneer and labor organizer A. Philip Randolph first proposed the March on Washington in 1941. "Randolph initially conceived of the march as a way to pressure President Franklin Roosevelt to prohibit racial discrimination in federal government war contracts but never felt the need to carry it out," Waterhouse said.
  • Civil rights groups wedded to different tactics and strategies united to organize the march. "To the leading civil rights organizations," Waterhouse said, "the March on Washington represented an opportunity to collaborate on an event that placed the need for federal government action on civil rights and labor issues on the national stage."
  • For President John F. Kennedy and his administration, the march was a public safety and a political risk that had to be closely managed and controlled. "This directly conflicted with the view of grass-roots organizers who were determined to end the filibuster in the United States Senate holding up legislation to prohibit certain forms of racial discrimination through a massive civil disobedience campaign to shut down Washington, D.C.," Waterhouse said.

Waterhouse is professor of law and dean's fellow at the McKinney School, on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus. He is known internationally for his research and writing on reparations for historic injustices and state human rights violations. To arrange an interview, contact Diane Brown, 317-274-2195 or Top

Anniversary brings joy and pain

For Valerie Grim, professor and chair of the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at IU Bloomington, the March on Washington is a deeply personal symbol of her own journey as a child of the Deep South, born at a key moment in the civil rights movement.

"I was still in diapers when Dr. King gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech," she said. "An African-American baby girl, living in Mississippi, I had no idea of the struggles and plight of black people. But as I matured, my parents shared the painful history of Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer and countless others they knew and heard about who lost life, limbs and land in the struggle."

Grim says her parents had faith in President John F. Kennedy's promises of justice and opportunity. "But they believed Dr. King had been 'called' by God to not only help black people, but to help all people experience the realities of scripture, where love is described as the greatest form of justice," she said.

She said her parents worked hard to "educate, liberate and give us hope." They believed life would be better for later generations if people continued to stand up for their rights. "Like my mother and father, black people throughout America hoped that August 1963 would be a change agent moment," she said.

The march showed that people from all walks of life can work together to bring about positive change despite differences, Grim said. But it also reminds us of our failure to love one another. And recent political developments, such as the Supreme Court decision striking down a critical section of the Voting Rights Act, suggest that gains associated with the March on Washington are being lost.

"Remembering the march brings joy and pain," Grim said. "The march was ultimately about living justice -- the right we have as American citizens to co-exist peacefully as we experience what it means to be members of a diverse nation. But blinding ourselves to racial hatred, engaging in disdain for the poor, abusing the elderly and showing a lack of interest in and concern for those who are different in our society will not help make us a better America.

"There is still too much discrimination in the political process, in housing, in the job market and the criminal justice system, and too many problems with mass incarceration, poor education, poor health care, nutrition and other social problems. Those who believe in freedom cannot rest."

To speak with Grim, contact George Vlahakis, 812-855-0846 or Top

A long way to go

Sheila Kennedy

Sheila Suess Kennedy

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While the march is celebrated today, it's easy to forget that the civil rights struggle faced enormous resistance, says Sheila Suess Kennedy of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.

"I remember the March," Kennedy said. "The contemporaneous reaction was very different than the current celebration of equality. Martin Luther King was roundly excoriated as a radical, a troublemaker and worse. After his death, early efforts to declare a holiday in his name were vigorously opposed.

"These days, we congratulate ourselves that we've come a long way, and we point to the election of an African-American president among many other markers of progress," she added. "That progress is real, but we've seen an immense -- and to me, at least, entirely unexpected -- backlash to Barack Obama's election, an eruption of racism and racial resentment that is deeply troubling.

"We have a long way to go to realize King's dream."

Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy in SPEA at IUPUI. Her areas of expertise include civil rights, civil liberties and constitutional culture. To arrange an interview, contact Rich Schneider, 317-278-4564 or Top

A legacy of 'soul force'

Stephanie Power-Carter

Stephanie Power-Carter

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The March on Washington represented a loud crescendo in the fight against injustice as more than 200,000 people demanded change in the nation's capital, says Stephanie Power-Carter, director of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center and associate professor in the School of Education at IU Bloomington

"It is hard to believe," she said, "that it was only 50 years ago that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and declared that he was there to 'cash a check' for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and current congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis declared, 'The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.'

For some, Power-Carter said, the anniversary of the march is a time to reflect on agency and activism. For others, it is merely a story passed down from generation to generation about how it was back then.

"But I believe more than anything, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is a historic symbol of unity -- and, as noted by Dr. King, 'soul force,'" she said. "It is a powerful example of what happens when a diverse group of people, embracing nonviolence, courageously stand united to fight injustice and cheer on change at any cost.

"The march is a legacy of great magnitude that reminds us of our own 'soul force' and that the power of the collective resides in many individuals etching out a better path for the future," she said. "As the date nears to commemorate the anniversary of the march, we must reflect on our freedom: our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness; and we must continue to free ourselves and cultivate our own 'soul force.' Soul force is an infectious tool, and when used to fight injustice can create a ripple that reverberates through history."

To speak with Power-Carter, contact George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 or Top

Issues raised by movement remain pertinent

Jakobi Williams

Jakobi Williams

The issues raised by the March on Washington are just as significant today as they were in 1963, says Jakobi Williams, an associate professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington.

"Three critical issues that plagued African-Americans 50 years ago are even more pertinent today: poverty and unemployment, voter suppression, and the devaluation of black life," Williams said. "Today African-Americans have the highest unemployment statistics of any demographic. The recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act has essentially provided right-wing groups leverage to increase voter suppression of people of color. And the murder of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the racial polarization following the episode have highlighted deep foundations of America's lack of value of African-American life, even the life of a black child."

One clear difference between then and now is that Martin Luther King Jr. was at the center of attention in 1963, while President Barack Obama is the most popular African-American political figure today.

"I'm sure Dr. King would have many poignant and critical words for our president if he was alive to deliver the keynote at the 50th anniversary for the March on Washington," Williams said.

Williams is a historian of the civil rights and black power movements. His book "From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago" was published this year by University of North Carolina Press. To speak with him, contact Steve Hinnefeld at 812-856-3488 or Top