— It had almost happened 22 years earlier. Noted civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph had been planning a march on Washington in 1941 but President Franklin D. Roosevelt was concerned about escalating tensions during the turbulent times surrounding events leading up to World War II. Randolph was insistent because black workers were not receiving a fair share of (at least) government jobs. Roosevelt then signed a measure to help increase those opportunities. The march was called off.
It took eight more years until Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, signed a measure ending segregated practices in America’s Armed Forces. Troops would officially be treated equally, receive similar for the same work, and generally receive treatment any American citizen might expect under the Constitution. That happened in 1948, the same year that another oppressed people, the Israelis, finally got recognition of their own country. Truman signed that, as well.
The Armed Forces legislation came just a year after Jackie Robinson broke the so-called “color line’” in Major League baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Ironically, Robinson had withstood a court martial during his own days in the U.S. military when he refused to sit in the back of a bus in Texas simply because of his color. Robinson won that battle, the first of many in which he would emerge victorious, including one as a member of the 1955 Dodgers, the only Brooklyn team to ever win the World Series.
It was a decade of making respect and equal rights a priority, those years after World War II. Americans and their allies had won a stunning success but for many U.S. citizens who came back home little had changed. After fighting to make sure others around the globe had secured freedom, soldiers of color were dismayed, disappointed, and angered to discover they were not welcome at many public restaurants, restrooms, and hotels in their own native land.
History does repeat itself sometimes. In Alabama the same year Dem Bums were beating the Yankees, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. It would result in the (publicized) start of the national civil rights movement. Yet, like many events in American history, there were parallel situations.
One happened in Farmville, Va. (Prince Edward County) on April 23, 1951. At Robert Moton High School, more than 400 students walked out in protest over local and state policies. The teens, led by brave young people like Barbara Johns (who has been called by some the (original Rosa Parks) were disgusted by second-rate facilities, lower teaching salaries for teachers of color, and other discriminatory practices.
They marched in front of the courthouse and closed the school. In fact, all the schools in the county were eventually shut down. Prince Edward County closed its schools for five years (1959-1964) rather than integrate. However, the case that went to court in 1951 in Virginia, entitled “Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County” was combined with four other cases known as the famed “Brown v. Board of Education” involving eventual Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It helped to change the course of American history but the struggle was at times long, frustrating, and still on-going for many.
By the early 1960s, Randolph and other leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were again prepared to bring their case to Washington. Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, and Dr. Dorothy Height were among the key figures. So, too, was a young activist minister named Martin Luther King, an Atlanta native who had led the Montgomery bus boycott after Parks’ stand nearly a decade earlier. Randolph pointed out in mid-summer of ’63 that six million Americans were unemployed, 22 million lived in certifiable poverty, and that voting rights for black citizens were virtually non-existent in much of the country.
Although another President, John F. Kennedy, urged caution and wanted to call off the march, Randolph and others would not be denied. Saying that freedom cannot be denied they pressed forward. More than 250,000 people jammed the area around the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial in 95-degree heat on August 28 to hear songs, statements and speeches from 10 speakers.
The last was King himself. Using notes for most of his speech, it was his off-the-cuff, spontaneous conclusion with references to coast-to-coast America and his statement ‘I have a Dream’ that pushed his comments from inspiring to legendary.
Yet, 50 years later, 12 million people are without work in the world’s richest country. The percentage of black Americans holding jobs is roughly 53 percent (59 percent for whites and 60 percent of Asians, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).
There is still work to do to truly attain Martin Luther King, Jr.’s deferred dream.
Larry Hypes is a teacher at Tazewell High School and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.