Aug 28, 2013 - By Steven R. PeckFifty years after the March on Washington, let us not surrender to self-congratulation
Fifty years after the upheaving March on Washington in 1963, a black man is president of the United States.
That doesn't sum up everything about race relations and civil rights in this country, but it covers a lot. By the time readers of our community newspaper 2,000 miles from Washington, D.C., see these words, President Barack Obama will have stood on the same steps that Martin Luther King Jr. stood on Aug. 28, 1963. He will have delivered his own speech, both in commemoration and extension of King's landmark oration 50 years earlier.
The simple fact of Barack Obama's existence and position demonstrates forcefully and unequivocally the progress the United States of America has made in the fair and equal treatment of all its citizens. The old men and women who were young men and women in 1963 on the Washington Mall are unanimous in saying that a black man as president was an impractical idea back then, perhaps even an unimaginable one.
President Obama is not popular in Wyoming, but in the abstract his election -- and, perhaps more importantly, his re-election -- are deeply meaningful. Suddenly, two of the top Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016 are Hispanic men. Leading the polls in the early going for the Democratic presidential nomination next time around is a woman. A certain roadblock toward a certain kind of success has been removed.
That has a lot to do with the March on Washington.
But we must not surrender ourselves to back-patting and self congratulation based on the undeniable and spectacular success story of the president, or of Tiger Woods, LeBron James or Oprah Winfrey.
When his words sang and rang over the quarter-million strong on that sticky afternoon in 1963 (a Wednesday, just like this year), King probably wasn't thinking about a super-rich talk-show host or a pro golfer with a private jet. There were individual black American millionaires in 1963 already.
King had a larger problem in mind, and most of his speech that day was a straightforward indictment of the system of federal laws, state laws, school practices, banking regulations, voting rules and social stigma that kept citizens from receiving equal consideration under the law.
Yes, King had a dream "that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls," but what occupied his reality, not his dreams, was the fight to get fair wages, decent bathrooms, and the right to get a seat on a bus or order a ham sandwich in a restaurant.
Fifty years later, those particular concerns have been vanquished. Today's conversation has to do with economic equality, school opportunity, fair treatment by law enforcement and, to the surprise of many, voting rights.
In an interesting line from the Oscar-winning movie "The Social Network," two lead characters argue about how and when their new website, Facebook, will be finished.
"It's like fashion," says Mark Zuckerberg. "Fashion is never finished." It just changes and goes on.
The same might be said for art, or music. Or civil rights.
"We are not finished," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia on Tuesday. He was a 23-year-old activist who also spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago. Now he is part of the dwindling number who actually were there that day, who remember not only how the March on Washington has come through history, but what the feeling was on the Mall when it happened.
Something that always has set our nation apart from its great rivals is our acceptance of self-examination and, when necessary, of self-criticism. We're not afraid to look ourselves in the mirror, to find fault, and to work on improvement.
The battle cry of that philosophy in a great nation is "Yes, but ..." If we always have that with us, then we are never finished. And we never ought to be.
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