Commemorating the March on Washington
The occasion of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech, has set the Columbia School of Social Work abuzz. Last week, a few faculty and staff members shared their memories of what it was like to be there. And many of us reflected on the scale of the social change that has occurred (or not) since that epic event in the nation’s civil right history. Below are a few highlights from these exchanges.
David Yam, Dean of Students
I do remember being there. I went down with the American Postal Workers Union since I was working at a post office for a summer job. The Postal Service was freaking out because so many of us were planning to go, and the officials were worried about who would sort the mail or deliver it.
No one knew how many would show up! The New Jersey Turnpike was awash with charter buses. When we arrived, the mall was jammed and we were forced to watch from afar. There were no jumbotrons. All you could see was an incredible sea of humanity—black and white. We were united and hopeful that maybe the Kennedy administration would finally be emboldened to change the laws.
No one really appreciated the significance of the event until after it was over. I had been in Mississippi and Alabama as part of Freedom Summer. It was both moving and scary. The hatred I saw and experienced there still lives inside me. It was pale to the experiences that the blacks living in the South faced every day.
We have made enormous progress but the inequities and racism still lives on and so does the fight to eradicate it.
Irwin Garfinkel, Mitchell I. Ginsberg Professor of Contemporary Urban Problems
I was at the March. I traveled by train over night from Pittsburgh, went with my cousin Miriam, sang most of the night, arrived mid-morning, was entertained by the greatest gathering of folksingers, possibly ever, for hours.
I remember trying to hear John Lewis speak as he was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a hero not much older than me, but only caught parts of what he said as the crowd noise was so loud.
At some point, I sat down somewhere as people all around me had done, but I could not see the Lincoln Memorial and had no idea where I was relative to the Memorial. But, it was all good, like being in the midst of a great picnic, celebrating together with strangers a deeply held shared belief in our country’s founding ideal—that all men are created equal—and a determination to make practice live up to that ideal.
Within seconds it seemed after King began speaking, a hush came over the crowd. I heard every word. I was inspired.
But, I have no recollection of going home that day.
A response from Professor Garfinkel’s daughter, Lynn: I am so proud of my dad for (amongst many other things) his activism in the civil rights movement. I agree, it seems to have been not only a historic and defining moment, but also a very beautiful one. It’s been wonderful to see the clips and documentaries of the March during this anniversary period. And to have a first-hand account…how lucky am I!
I look forward to my dad finding the article he wrote that was published in his school paper urging people to go to the March as well as the writing he did when he got back.
Lynn Garfinkel works as an immigration attorney at Carliner & Remes in Washington, D.C.
Aviva Golos Zweben (MSW, LCSW), wife of Senior Associate Dean Allen Zweben
In 1963, I had been living in Berkeley, California, where I was involved in early civil rights protests. I returned to my hometown of Elmira, New York, later that summer and was asked to participate in the March on Washington which was being organized by the local NAACP.
I went to Washington representing my synagogue, Shomray Hadath. On the very early bus to Washington, I talked with the local NAACP members and learned about the role of my rabbi, the late James Gordon, had played in their organization. As they talked about Rabbi Gordon’s participation in local NAACP activities, I learned about tolerance and dignity for all. This set the mood for the entire day in Washington where one felt a sense of history and opening up of feelings of tolerance toward all men and women of different faiths and color.
Aviva Zweben is Director of Quality of Assurance at the Jewish Association for Services to the Aged (JASA).
Jeanette C. Takamura, Dean
The I Have a Dream speech is regarded as the best ever delivered in the United States, along with such noteworthy addresses as the Gettysburg Address by President Abraham Lincoln (1863), the First Inaugural Address by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933), and the Inaugural Address by newly elected President John F. Kennedy (1961).
While progress has been made, many of the issues that were troubling then remain to be resolved, among them those issues tied to NYC’s stop-and-frisk policy, which many regard as bearing discriminatory, punitive, and stigmatizing implications for persons of color. It is one among many issues in our contemporary context we should not ignore.
While the events and speeches noted above reveal the struggles within the U.S., no nation about which I know is exempt from its own internal social justice and human rights issues. It is an unfortunate reality that we all share as human beings. Whether people from a nation discriminate against each other based on social class, region of country, race, dialect, religious belief, educational background, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, refugee/immigrant status, or limited English proficiency, there are inequities and cruelties that have been perpetuated in every nation around the world. Those of us who are here at the School of Social Work should agree that we need to be instruments of justice, not instruments that perpetuate human suffering, whether at the individual, national, or global level.
My hope and my dream for our students is that they will learn well the lessons of the profession, understand its contradictions as well as its strengths and shortcomings, improve it, aspire to the highest standard, and always choose to create societies in which discrimination, pettiness, and suffering are not tolerated.
Charles E. Lewis, Jr. (Ph.D.’02)
The 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington organized by labor leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin that featured the “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a time for reflection on progress that was or was not made, a time to assess the effectiveness of the ideas and strategies employed in the effort to realize Dr. King’s dream, and a time to recommit ourselves to the fulfillment of that dream. As I listened to the many commemorative speeches made at the Lincoln Memorial, I heard a number of references to the lack of progress and the many impediments to progress. There was a lot of blame, but I was not clear about who was being blamed for the lack of progress.
Many black people believe their progress has been short-circuited by a “white power structures”. True, there have been many powerful white men who have thwarted progress by refusing to hire black people, by redlining black communities, and by overseeing a corrupt criminal justice system. Yet, in my mind, I envisioned that if Dr. King was alive today, he would remind black Americans that all of our troubles are not the fault of white folks. I believe he would be quick to acknowledge that America has not dealt sufficiently with its racist past and because of that failure we have the unequal playing field of the present. Yet, I believe Dr. King would want black people to stop focusing so much on black problems and broaden the fight for social justice.
Of course, I cannot speak for Dr. King, but I believe he would tell black people we need to figure out how to graduate more poor children, how to reduce the violence that plagues our neighborhoods, and how to heal broken relationships that cause so many young black kids to be born into poor single female-headed households. This is not a Bill Cosby moment. Dr. King would not put the blame solely on black people for these shortcomings. But he would challenge us to find a way to solve these problems with the help of government and with the cooperation of people of good will from all walks of life. He would do this while celebrating the progress black people have made through the years because of the sacrifices and leadership of so many great Americans like Rep. John Lewis.
Fifty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we know that economic inequality threatens the future for too many Americans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. We should know that there are no solutions to black problems independent of the problems that many non-black Americans are dealing with today. However, I believe because of black people’s experience in America, we have a unique perspective on social problems just as I believe social workers—because of our training—have a unique approach to social policy.
We need more researchers and policy analysts of color developing and aggressively pursuing policy solutions to the problems confronting millions of Americans who are disproportionately black and Latino. We need to be clear about the desired outcomes and the policies needed to achieve those outcomes. There are some that are obvious such as having an unrestricted right to vote and an unbiased criminal justice system. Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech addressing mandatory minimums has set the table for making significant policy change.
What about educating poor children? I think much more can be done to improve the educational outcomes of poor children. Most poor children rely on public education. I would like to see more policy initiatives from the black community on how to realize higher graduation rates. I would like to see more private investment from the black community. There is no reason why Marva Collins, David C. Banks and Geoffrey Canada should not have all the resources they need to develop a comprehensive plan to increase graduation rates for black and poor students. And, should that plan emerge, I am sure the Gates Foundation and others will get behind it.
President Barack Obama has received criticism for publicly admonishing black people for our shortcomings and some of that criticism is understandable because of the events he chose to do this. However, I believe black people can do more to improve our lot and those of others. We can develop policy ideas that would alter the status quo and we can sell them to the public if not the Congress. It is not all white people’s fault that Dr. King’s dream has not been realized. The sooner we focus on that, the better off we will be.
An alumnus of the School of Social Work, Dr. Lewis is the president of the Congressional Research Instititute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP). This post originally appeared on the CRISP site and is cross-posted here with his permission.
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