On the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, We Must Sing Each Other’s Songs

On Wednesday, August 28, the world will come together to celebrate and rejoice in the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington – a culminating of nearly 100 years of protest against the American regime of Jim Crow and for the establishment of universal civil rights. The March will be forever remembered for including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s soaring “I Have a Dream” speech, a hallmark of American rhetoric, ultimately setting the tone for the discourse of equality and freedom in America ever since.

As a Point Foundation scholar and current law student at UCLA, I marvel at the progress that civil rights fighters have made over the last half century.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted in the wake of the March, have opened incalculable doors of opportunity for millions of people driven to pursue the American Dream, including myself.  Because of these changes in law in culture, the March stands a bookmark example of the United States’ resolution to become “a More Perfect Union” – one that is unified in its goals for equality, freedom, and liberty, filled with respect and celebration of one’s fellow man.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Shelby County v. Holder and Fisher v. University of Texas, muting the Voting Rights Act and increasing the burden on public institutions to defend affirmative action programs, respectfully, as well as recent commentary from national leaders to dismiss the importance of race in formal and informal contexts and to just be “Americans,” I must reiterate the importance of the March on Washington and some of its forgotten lessons.  Point Scholars and their supporters, driven to increase the visibility and impact of LGBTQ scholars on the national stage, should look upon the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech as national calls to action, with the ultimate goal of celebrating – not quieting – our differences.

One of the most obvious and most poignant errors about the March on Washington is in the title.  The “March on Washington” is a shortened title.  The full title of the event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” marking the event not just as a passive exercise, but as a demonstration of resistance, a march of protest, a call for real change in America.  When King states in the “Dream” speech that, “America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’” we know that the organizers of the March had no intention of whitewashing race in America.  People like King, Rep. John Lewis, and LGBT icon Bayard Rustin were fighting for racial justice and remediation.  Steps like the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were vital steps – and beginning steps, at that – to ensuring a more perfect America.  Replacing programs like federal voting oversight, affirmative action, and anti-discrimination laws with stop-and-frisk, stand-your-ground, and three strikes policies does irreparable harm to the American image and creates two levels of citizenship.  Ignoring race while continuing unbalanced and disrespectful regimes maintains hate and division, and only removes the language to defeat it.

The most repeated part of King’s “Dream” speech concerns his dream of the mountaintop – a place where, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”  Some have used this passage to call for a colorblind (and history-blind) society that buries its past and ignores structural conditions that impede the progress of groups based on race, gender and gender presentation, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and ability.  King’s definition of ‘brotherhood’, I dare to say, would not include such a dismissive and lethargic view of our collective history.  True brotherhood includes respect for each other’s experiences, the seeking of righteous justice for wrongs done in the past, and a striving towards mutuality.  On the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, we must remember these lessons and not allow others to co-opt the meaning and movement of the March.  This is our task as Point Scholars and as members of the United States striving towards perfection.

This post was written by Voices On Point Scholar Gregory Davis
Gregory Davis was raised with his brother by his mother, older sister, grandmother, and uncle in Detroit. In his studies, Gregory has explored the LGBTQ experience both within and outside of a racial context.  He has focused on how African-American LGBTQ youth find, confirm, and fortify their identities in the face of possible social discrimination and prejudice based on their race and/or sexual orientation. As a JD/MA joint-degree candidate in Afro-American Studies and Law at UCLA, he devotes much time and effort to understanding the queer experience. Learn more about Gregory.