The importance of marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week cannot be stressed too much to a younger generation that has has enjoyed the benefits of the achievements of that time but without realizing the kinds of struggles involved. It is important to recall that history, and also to trigger new conversations about how, really, we may not have come as far as we think.
There was a vitality, an energy, a newness, in the first March on Washington that simply cannot be called forth by trying to reenact it. The only way to evoke that sense is to confront the challenges of today with the same qualities of courage and resolve.
The year of 1963 was hardly a watershed of unchallenged progress in the advance of civil rights. It was a battlefield. Three months after Dr. King’s inspired “I Have a Dream” speech in front of 250,000 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. The year marked the release of the highly-troubling, prescient movie, “Seven Days in May,” presenting an unsettling scenario about a military coup in the U.S.
Having come through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nation remained locked in a frightening Cold War and nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. The Kennedy assassination threw the nation into a funk. A sense of despair over the inevitability of all-out thermonuclear war was compounded by an escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam that subjected hundreds of thousands of the nation’s young to a mandatory draft and the eventual loss of 58,000 lives in jungle combat. As a result, many young were pulled away from the causes of racial and economic justice with a deepening nihilism that underpinned the new “counterculture” obsession with mindless “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
The August 1963 March on Washington was, in many ways, a high-water mark in the struggle for civil rights in the U.S., even as the cause carried forward for passage of the civil rights and voting rights acts and the mid-1960s War on Poverty.
Many covert U.S. intelligence operations were unleashed in the wake of that 1963 civil rights moment against its demonstrated, powerful show of force on behalf of justice and equality for all. Of the 250,000 at that rally and march, 60,000 were non-Blacks, and Dr. King called on them out to join in the struggle against those bastions of power who ruled through hate and prejudice.
Historians and investigators still have a lot of work to do to peel back the cover stories provided by the CIA and others in the U.S. for their efforts to defuse the potential effects of that day, including by assassinations (Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King and RFK), by sparking riots and the mass infusion of drugs into the nation’s ghettos, and by the widespread deployment of cults and LSD against an idealistic youth culture.