Tag Archives: March on Washington

Fifty Years Later

I’ve been mulling over the fifty-year anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech.

Unlike many–actually, most–of those providing commentary around this milestone, I didn’t read about the event in class or see television reports after the fact. I was twenty-one when the March occurred–the coverage I saw was contemporaneous, and a great deal of it was far from positive.

In Indiana, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of the population considered King an “agitator.” Even among people who genuinely wanted a more equal society, there were concerns that King’s approach was too “in your face,” and would end up making things even worse. Needless to say, there were plenty of people who were not just unconcerned with racial justice,  but who strongly believed that black people were inferior and needed to be kept “in their place,” and were outraged not just by the March on Washington, but by the entire civil rights movement.

So–fifty years later, where are we?

Are things better than they were when I was young? Absolutely. Are they where one might hope after fifty years? Not even close. Considerable racial animus persists, although its expression has (thankfully) changed.

Ironically, it was the election of an African-American President that brought long-buried racial resentments out from under the rocks that had obscured them. Perhaps progress is always like this: two steps forward, one back. Advance, then blowback. But Obama’s election unleashed a bitter undercurrent that surprised and disheartened many of us. The “birther” accusations, the racist emails, the hysterical opposition to everything the President does or says, the characterization of America’s Commander-in-Chief as a Muslim, a socialist, a Nazi….as “other.” I suppose it is a measure of progress that even the haters feel the need for euphemisms, and use these labels rather than the “n” word they so clearly mean.

I suppose it’s progress that they shrink from acknowledging even to themselves that their blind hatred is motivated by race.

Fifty years ago, in the midst of the social upheaval that we now simply call “the Sixties,” it would have been impossible to predict where social forces were taking the country. Despite the wrenching changes and excesses–and the enormous and often disproportionate reaction to those excesses–I would argue that the country emerged a fairer and more equal place. I  hope we can say the same thing about our current divisions fifty years from now.

Martin Luther King was certainly right about one thing: the arc of history does bend slowly.


The Pace of Progress

Civil rights activists often disagree over tactics. That was (and is) true of the African-American civil rights movement, and similar disputes characterize those working for equal rights for women, Latinos and other minorities. So it should not surprise anyone that gay rights activists often disagree about where resources should be deployed and when, or whether to be confrontational or to work behind the scenes.

There aren’t “good guys” and “bad guys” in most of these debates—just idealistic people of good will who have different ideas about the best way to proceed.

 The most recent evidence of such disagreement was this fall’s March on Washington. It is no secret that many people in the so-called “gay establishment”—HRC comes to mind—were less than thrilled at the prospect of diverting energy and resources from places like Maine, where the recent recognition of same-sex marriage faces a Proposition 8-like repeal effort. (HRC did get on board when it became obvious the March would be held, but its early reluctance was hardly a secret. Barney Frank never did support it.)

At the March itself, another fault-line became evident.

Many members of the gay community are clearly angry that the Obama Administration has not yet acted on several promises to advance equality for gays, lesbians and transgendered people. A number of those who delivered speeches at the March made their displeasure very clear. The general sentiment was: yes, you talk the talk. But where’s the walk?

Others–generally those who have worked on equality issues for many years and who are all too familiar with the political barriers that have to be dealt with–believe that  actually achieving these changes is more complicated than the critics seem to understand. They are impatient with impatience.

As a recovering lawyer, I am painfully aware that legal changes almost always lag cultural ones. That’s because legislatures and even the courts (angry accusations about “socialist” policymakers and “imperial” courts notwithstanding) rarely act until something akin to a social consensus emerges. Nor can a President unilaterally make most changes. And even when a President can act without Congress, through Executive Order, there are legislative consequences to be expected.

The impatience displayed by many of the Washington marchers is understandable. It’s like being told that “if you just stay in the back of the bus a bit longer” America is more likely to get health care and environmental protection. Why should GLBT rights be held in thrall to other goals? What’s the point of having political capital if you don’t spend it?

My own analysis is somewhat different. Barack Obama is one of the most strategic politicians to come along in my lifetime. I believe him when he says–as he did at the HRC dinner–that he is committed to achieving equal rights for the GLBT community. And I believe him when he says he will do so in his first term.

There are two things any constituency needs from its political champions: sincere commitment and the strategic smarts to actually get something done. I think Clinton had the commitment; but he couldn’t get it done.  He was ahead of his time, for one thing; the culture was not quite ready. But he also made a tactical error; his approach to the issue of gays in the military was clumsy and badly timed. I think Obama knows how to get things done–even very difficult things.

Basically, Obama is asking the gay community to trust him.

It’s easy for me to say, of course–I’m not gay. But I DO trust him. And those of my friends who’ve been long-time activists on behalf of GLBT  rights, people who know how tough these fights still are, trust him too.

We may be wrong–only time will tell. But when Obama says he’ll get it done during his first term, I believe him.