Not even a visionary like Martin Luther King, Jr., who dreamed great dreams for American blacks, could have predicted that the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington would be celebrated by America’s first African-American president. On Aug. 28, President Obama will speak at the “Let Freedom Ring” rally marking how far we’ve come — and how far we still have to go — since the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Objectively speaking, America has come a long way with respect to black-white relations over the past 50 years, notwithstanding the many difficulties and challenges. One only needs to consider what a remarkable symbol Barack Obama represents and what he has achieved, born only 52 years ago. A child of an African immigrant and a white Kansas native; raised largely by a single mother and grandmother; a graduate of some of America’s finest schools; an attorney and instructor at a prestigious law school; a U.S. Senator at the age of 43; president of the United States at 47, elected by a decisive margin and reelected by an greater one.
On the other hand, much that was being fought for on Aug. 28, 1963, has yet to be achieved. The Voting Rights Act, which Dr. King and others were demanding in 1963 and which became law in 1965, did so much to bring African Americans much more fully and equally into the electoral process. And yet one of its key provisions was recently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, despite the fact, as even Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged in the majority opinion, that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.”
Similarly, the complicated and diverse reactions in the Trayvon Martin case point to how deep-seated are so many of the prejudices which one largely had assumed had been overcome in America. It brought to the fore the serious racial divide expressed in widespread “stand-your-ground” laws as well as the extensive racial profiling tolerated even in the finest police systems in the nation.
Both issues exemplify how much still needs to be accomplished in America to make this country truly color blind.
As in many areas of his presidency, President Obama has not used his office as effectively and forcefully as he might have done to counter racism in this country. The president may be extremely compelling on the stump and in (most) debates, but he has strong aversion to using the White House as a bully pulpit on substantive issues. Just as he needs to shame an obstructionist Congress into governing, he needs to demand that lawmakers immediately repair the consequences of the Supreme Court’s flawed decision on the Voting Right Act. Otherwise, the 2014 elections may revert to the ugliness that pervaded the country in the earlier period.
For Jews, there has been a growing ambivalence about their involvement in civil rights issues. During the halcyon days of the movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Kivie Kaplin, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner formed a natural bond with African-Americans in the civil rights movement. The children and grandchildren of former American slaves and the new American immigrants and their children — who themselves had suffered so much prejudice in Europe — marched together, united in their determination to achieve freedom for all and to remove bias in all of American life.
Today, one has a sense that there is much less unity and common cause. The unique relationship between Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, unfortunately has become the exception rather than the rule. There are individuals and communities where the bonds are still strong and dynamic; yet, there is hostility, misunderstanding as well as differences — over Israel, among other things — between leaders of both communities.
The Jewish and African-American communities, however, could do well to choose this 50th anniversary occasion to reaffirm their commitment to the joint “dream” from which both communities can and must benefit.