WASHINGTON – Wednesday’s scene at the Lincoln Memorial was a subtle but powerful snapshot of the state of the American struggle for equal rights today.
Optics told the story. The most obvious was President Obama, the key speaker and presence at the spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. created a seminal moment of the civil rights movement 50 years ago.
But there were other, less obvious reminders of how far the nation has come in its struggle to ensure equal rights for all, and how far it has to go.
Start with King himself. An outsider, an agitator reviled by so many Americans, suspected by federal law enforcement authorities of being a dangerous figure, today he stands enshrined as an icon of American history, his memorial a short walk from Lincoln’s.
Then consider today’s Washington. The 1963 March on Washington occurred in a city slowly shedding its sleepy, racially polarized Southern ways.
Football’s Washington Redskins were preparing to begin their second integrated season, having accepted their first black player the year before under federal government pressure. Just beyond the Mall was the National Theater, reopened 11 years earlier after abandoning live stage shows for four years rather than integrate.
Nearby department stores had a history of not allowing blacks into the fitting rooms. The local amusement park opened to blacks only two years earlier.
The lead-up to the march was tense. Officials feared it would turn violent. President John F. Kennedy was concerned that the event would hurt efforts to pass civil rights legislation. Fifty years later, the only tension was whether the rain would hold off.
Obama and two former presidents had prominent speaking roles, and each was a living reminder of America’s civil rights history.
Jimmy Carter, born in 1924, grew up in rigidly segregated rural Georgia. In 1970, five years after the Voting Rights Act helped unleash a new wave of black voter empowerment, he was in the vanguard of the New South’s governors. Moderate on spending and regulatory issues, Carter eagerly embraced integration, declaring in his 1971 inaugural address that the days of racial segregation were over.
Bill Clinton was the symbol of the next generation of Southern politicians. Born in Hope, Ark., in 1946, he attended segregated schools in a state that had seen one of the nation’s first desegregation battles after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used federal troops to escort black students integrating Little Rock Central High School.
Forty-one years later, as president, Clinton signed into law a measure designating the school a National Historic Site.
Finally, there was Obama, the son of a white mother and a black father, raised in multiracial Hawaii, the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt elected twice with popular-vote majorities.
The presence of all three in the shadow of the King memorial made Wednesday a day of reflection. But it’s unlikely the event will endure as the kind of political demarcation line that defined Aug. 28, 1963. That day was a classic right-place, right-time moment.
In the years before, the modern civil rights movement was a drama whose stage was the South, a place and culture foreign to most Americans.
The march served notice that civil rights could no longer be just a Southern issue. It was America’s. In the shadow of Lincoln, with the U.S. Capitol’s dome in their sights, King and others proclaimed their fight was now Washington’s, as well.
Within two years, landmark civil rights and voting rights measures had become law, ending legal segregation and obliterating legal obstacles to voter intimidation.
Wednesday’s event is unlikely to spur that kind of change, despite the hopes and pleas at the rally. People who gathered on the Mall 50 years ago “were not there in search of some abstract ideal,” Obama said. “They were seeking jobs as well as justice.”
Little by little, said veteran organizer Lisa Fithian, different movements across the nation are gaining momentum – immigration, gay rights, gun control, affordable health care – and uniting in a common purpose.
“Look at the last 10 years,” she said. “We’re seeing significant convergence.”
But that convergence has yet to ignite the kind of political momentum that prods Washington to resolve seemingly intractable problems.
Congress was gone Wednesday, its fourth week of a recess that is scheduled to last another 10 days. When it returns, Topics A and B are likely to be America’s role in Syria and how to keep the government running past the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.
The march’s causes will be heard and remembered, but in scattershot ways. Lawmakers will fight over the future of food stamps and efforts to rewrite the suddenly weakened Voting Rights Act. They’ll give serious attention to overhauling the immigration system, and conservatives will make a strong push to dilute the 2010 health care law that Wednesday’s crowd considers a major achievement.
Wednesday made it clear: Aug. 28, 1963, had the feel of a crusade. Aug. 28, 2013, had the feel of a moment to take stock.
“America,” Clinton said, “is always becoming, always on a journey.”
Wednesday is more likely to be viewed as the upbeat end of a chapter in that saga, not the beginning of a new one.