Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary not just of a peaceful march and a beautiful speech, but of a dream given body and voice by a people united in their pursuit of liberty.
Having spent much of my working life in the government, I am asked how that dream looks today, how much has been fulfilled, and how much more we have left to go. The plain and sad truth is that much of the condition of our people today is worse than when Dr. King died. Some things have improved, but I am truly dismayed that the cultural and educational disparities between whites and blacks have increased at such an alarming rate. Why are so many of our nation’s underperforming schools found in black neighborhoods? Why is our picture of a strong family much more often a white one than a black one? Why have our children left our homes and schools for the violence and mayhem of the streets?
No one who has been paying attention to the world outside his own home can say that the dream has been realized. The work of closing these gaps must be done through government, yes, but also through our own discipline.
The portion of Dr. King’s speech to which I have always looked for encouragement comes right in the middle: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” Dr. King did not expect his people to sit back and wait for the government to grant us all the rights and liberties we deserve. He exhorted us all to continue to work for that dream until it is fully realized, and to work with discipline. That message has been lost to us, and with that message our best hope for a brighter future.
On this anniversary, we must remember not just a great speech and a great man, but the dream we all shared, the faith we had in one day seeing it fulfilled, and the way we were shown to get there.
— Kay James is the founder and president of the Gloucester Institute and a former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
The 1963 March on Washington was a turning point in the civil-rights movement, and in a significant sense a movement away from the civil-rights movement. The march was formally called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The jobs part is usually overlooked, but was really a demand for something more than civil rights as traditionally understood.
Most Americans in 1963 understood “civil rights” to mean the right to equal opportunity for individuals, regardless of race. The “jobs” demand was for an entitlement to equal economic outcomes for racial groups, using race when necessary. Freedom or civil rights would be secured by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but even these acts were quickly transformed into something more, known as “affirmative action.”
The March on Washington was a racially focused extension of 20th-century liberalism’s transformation of the idea of rights. Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed this in his 1944 message to Congress, when he said that “our rights to life and liberty” had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” He talked about new, self-evident, economic truths — “a second Bill of Rights.” This bill of rights included the right to a job, the right to food and recreation, the right to adequate farm prices, the right to a decent home, the right to medical care, and the right to a good education.
Of course, these are not “rights” at all — not in the sense that the framers and ratifiers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution used the term — but entitlements. From the Founding until the 20th century, the American regime assumed that government’s purpose was to secure pre-existing natural rights, such as life, liberty, property, or association. Everyone can exercise such rights simultaneously; nobody’s exercise of his own rights limits anyone else’s similar exercise. Your right to life or to work or to vote does not take anything away from anyone else. We can all pursue happiness at once. Entitlements, on the other hand, require someone else to provide me with the substantive good that the exercise of rights pursues. The right to work, for example, is fundamentally different from the right (entitlement) to a job; the right to marry does not entitle me to a spouse; the right to free speech does not entitle me to an audience.
As A. Philip Randolph, director of the March on Washington, put it, “Now we know that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions.”