Few half-century commemorations raise as many complex and uncomfortable questions as does the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington:
With a black man in the White House, has Martin Luther King’s dream been realized? With American social mobility seeming to be stalled, is the American Dream a dream deferred? With nearly a million black men in prison, is the King dream a dream denied? Plus: Why did the events of August 1963 sear us all so indelibly? What was the power in that speech, and in that march?
These questions haunt a nation that yearns to be post-racial. But in asking them — and they are top-of-mind for so many of us this season — we sometimes overlook the remarkable development behind it all, and behind this summer’s commemorations.
The civil rights movement, lasting roughly from 1955 to 1968 but with antecedents reaching far earlier and with effects cascading far later, produced a profound transformation — and has itself experienced just as profound a transformation.
It has been transformed in American memory from a much-reviled outsiders’ movement making what seemed to be extremist demands into a much-beloved popular uprising that almost seamlessly extended the logic of American values to a broader base of the nation. Many of its roots were in the effort to open the schoolhouse doors, and today its goals (and incomplete achievements) are so widely embraced that schools are closed in the middle of each January to celebrate its aspirations.
It began as a terrifying assault on broad, commonplace practices, led by the bold and the brave, steeped in civil disobedience, prosecuted on buses and at lunch counters and at the violent end of the fire hoses of the powerful. It evolved in memory into a proud, broad-based surge of honor whose principal genius is celebrated with a holiday and a Washington monument. Abraham Lincoln today has only the monument, no longer the holiday.