August 28, 2013

Cornellians Reflect on 50th Anniversary of March on Washington for Jobs, Freedom

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Members across the Cornell community reflected on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Wednesday, considering its impact on American society, race relations and the enduring legacy of the civil rights movement.

On Aug. 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people marched through D.C. calling for civil rights for African Americans. Looking back on the day, Prof. Travis Gosa, Africana studies, said the march was a significant force in spurring activism among young people.

“In the face of injustice, young people — not much older than the typical Cornell student — of the civil rights generation demonstrated courage against insurmountable odds,” Gosa said.

Gosa and other Cornellians said the March on Washington, as well as the broader civil rights movement, eventually allowed America to institute widespread desegregation, advocate equal opportunities and pass a ban on discrimination based on race, gender or ethnicity.

“If [Martin Luther King Jr.] were alive today, he would be amazed at the progress we have made in society since 1963,” said Cameron Pritchett ’15, vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Student Assembly.

Pritchett added that he “[has] friends of all races, religions and nationalities, and [that he is] the first African-American president in [his] fraternity’s 120-year existence.”

Although Pritchett said he has experienced diversity and inclusion at Cornell, he added that his experience is not necessarily representative of all others.

“There are still many people who do not have this comprehensive Cornell experience,” Pritchett said.

Speaking at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of the King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, President Barack Obama highlighted the protest’s impact in enacting social change.

“Because they marched, America became more free and more fair — not just for African-Americans but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities,” Obama said.

Echoing Obama’s sentiments, Prof. Oneka LaBennett, Africana studies, said she thinks the implications behind King’s speech transcend beyond the black community.

“While discourse around the March on Washington has often focused on its impact on the African American community, we must remember that the March’s speakers — especially Dr. King — were appealing to all Americans,” LaBennett said.

Despite the progress made toward achieving racial equality, Prof. Riche Richardson, Africana studies, questioned whether the civil rights movement has finished serving its purpose, or if King’s dream has been fulfilled.

“So many issues in recent times, from the recent retrenchments against black voting rights to the outcome of the George Zimmerman verdict for the murder of the Florida teen Trayvon Martin, serve as a sobering reminder that the struggle for civil rights continues,” Richardson said.

LaBennett said the march — occurring amid police brutality— also sparked racial tension, and that the negative events following the demonstration are often overlooked.

“Only 18 days later, four black girls were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. As much as hearts were lifted by the success of the march, hearts sunk after the KKK bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church,” she said.

Gosa insisted there is still much to be done to truly attain racial equality.

“In many ways, we’ve taken two steps forward and two steps back on ensuring that all citizens have equal access to the American Dream,” he said.

Recent events show that there is a need for further dialogue and increased awareness of racial bias, Richardson added.

“This is a moment that challenges us to reflect on where we are right now in the struggles for freedom and democracy and to think about where we are going,” she said.

Anushka Mehrotra is a Sun news writer. She can be reached at amehrotra@cornellsun.com.

Original Author: Anushka Mehrotra