Updated: September 24, 2013 6:25AM
Fifty years ago, we got it so wrong.
In an editorial on the very day of the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963, the Chicago Sun-Times disapproved.
“This newspaper, of course, approves of the fundamental cause of civil rights,” we wrote. “It does not, however, approve of the march as a method to dramatize that cause.”
We worried about violence.
“It must be peaceful,” we implored. “If there is violence, it will do irreparable damage to the cause the marchers espouse. If there is violence there will be irreparable damage to the United States as a world power that advocates freedom and equality for all men.”
And we ran the march through the wringer of Cold War politics.
“If there is violence, the Communists will be provided with an almost endless source of propaganda,” we wrote.
Goodness, how we fretted. And it gets worse. But let us pause in this mea culpa to offer a little context and perspective.
The Sun-Times was far from alone in failing to foresee what a powerful force for progress the march would be, just as so many Americans today have forgotten or never learned why the march mattered. The March on Washington in the popular imagination is often reduced to a single, tightly cropped if inspiring image: Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “I have a dream.”
The march was a watershed moment in America, the largest civil rights rally to that date and the first covered live on national television. It brought together some 250,000 black and white Americans in common cause and revved up the moral engine of fair-minded people from coast to coast. It is credited with creating momentum for passage in Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Let’s see Congress ignore this one!” one marcher, Frank Brown, who lived on 76th Street in Chicago, told a young Sun-Times reporter, James Hoge.
That was the remarkable, emotional truth of the march: The marchers knew they were making history, even if others did not. And it wasn’t all somber church swaying while singing “We Shall Overcome,” as so often it is portrayed in history books. It was a day rich in laughter and warm feelings. It was fun.
Hoge, no doubt instructed to be on the lookout for disturbances, marveled that “it was more like a giant picnic than a protest demonstration.”
When King finally did give his famous speech late in the day, the crowd was moved to tears. As Chicago civil rights veteran Timuel Black says in this week’s edition of the Chicago Reader, everybody was “wiping their tears and shaking their heads and hugging.”
Tragically, as the Reader also reports, the facts of life for black America 50 years later are not much improved, if at all. In 1960, 69 percent of African Americans in Chicago lived in largely segregated neighborhoods; in 2011 it was 63 percent. In 1968, unemployment among African Americans in Chicago was 7.6 percent; now it’s 19.5 percent.
In 1960, the poverty rate among African Americans in Chicago was 29.7 percent; today it is 34.1 percent.
The Sun-Times’ myopia continued on the day after the march. In a second editorial, after breathing a sigh of relief that there had been no violence, we asked “what must foreigners think” about some of the more militant signs marchers had carried, and we predicted that none of this would change a single vote on Capitol Hill.
The editorial quoted Sen. Everett M. Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, harrumphing, “I don’t think any legislator worth his salt would let mere noise and fireworks change his convictions.”
As if that were all the march had been: “noise and fireworks.”
What the Sun-Times said too little about then, and what nobody who desires a more fair society can say too much about today, was the marchers’ actual agenda: racial justice, equal opportunity, and the ability of every and any American to get a sound education and a good job. Those were the challenges of 1963 and, in different ways — despite the election of a black president and all the other progress we’ve made — those remain the challenges in 2013.
We can’t pretend otherwise. Not when a black baby born in Chicago today is overwhelmingly more likely than a white child to be raised in poverty by a single mother, to walk through a dangerous neighborhood to attend an inferior school, to teeter on a tightrope above the scourges of crime and drugs and hopeless alienation.
We cannot march enough.