The transformation that King began — the twin of the transformation prompted by Lincoln’s speech at a battlefield cemetery — is one of the most significant in human history, and it is, along with the victory over four tyrannies that required one hot war and another cold one, a signature American achievement of what once was called the American Century.
But before the self-congratulation becomes too hearty, let’s remember that this is not a “mission accomplished” moment and that all this was prompted by one of the greatest injustices in all of human history, a stain on the American story that begs a different question, still without an answer: Why did it take so long?
From our perspective here in the second term of the Barack Obama administration, the turning point almost surely was the August agonistes of 1963. For it is almost certain that the spark that bridged the gap between the unimaginable and the inevitable was that March on Washington.
“That march was the ultimate mobilization of what had been going on in all of the cities of the South, the ultimate gathering that expressed what was on the mind of black America,” Vernon Jordan, the former president of the National Urban League, said in a telephone conversation this summer. “What happened 50 years ago is that it all came together and the world could see it and appreciate its meaning.”
It is difficult to remember today, when that march is a monument in memory — cast in stone, you might say, like the Lincoln and King memorials — that the genius of it all wasn’t only in the careful planning of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. It also grew out of the improvisation prompted by Mahalia Jackson, once so well known that it wasn’t necessary to identify her as the Queen of Gospel.