The historic 1963 March on Washington, a watershed moment in the civil-rights movement, happened 50 years ago to the day today—a fact commemorated by the tens of thousands who gathered near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to remember the demonstration and the message of Rev. Martin Luther King.Joined by the First Lady, as well as Presidents Clinton and Carter, President Obama spoke of those who came before “Because they kept marching, America changed,” he told the crowd. “Because they marched, America became more free and more fair.”
Others made it clear that more progress is needed, as the country still reels from the death of Trayvon Martin and the repeal of the Voters Right Act: “We’ve come a great distance in this country in the 50 years, but we still have a great distance to go before we fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the last living speaker from the 1963 rally.
While the original march was focused on the rights of African Americans, it helped birth the LGBT rights movement, as well.
Before his death in 2005, gay activist Jack Nichols explained: “We had marched with Martin Luther King, seven of us from the Mattachine Society of Washington in 1963, and from that time on, we’d always had our dream about a [gay] march of similar proportions. At an earlier commemoration on Saturday, Attorney General Eric Holder told a crowd that a half-century later, the work of the March continues: “Our focus has broadened to include the cause of women, of Latinos, of Asian-Americans, of lesbians, of gays, of people with disabilities, and of countless others across this country who still yearn for equality, opportunity, and fair treatment,” he said.
In his comments, Obama said that “courage comes when an interracial couple connects to a gay couple who has been discriminated against, and understands it as their own… When we turn not from each other or on each other but towards each other.”
Bayard Rustin, whose involvement in the civil-rights movement and the March itself were pivotal, has long been just a historical footnote because his homosexuality made him a political pariah. But now steps are being taken to rectify that omission: President Obama is awarding Rustin a posthumous Presidential Medal of Honor, and Labor Secretary Tom Perez says Rustin, who died in 1987, will finally have a place in the department’s Hall of Honor.
“[Rustin] was one of our most tenacious fighters for the rights of workers, for collective bargaining, for the role unions play in expanding economic opportunity,” said Perez. “The 1963 March on Washington that he organized – the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” as we all know, was the full name – was conceived as a demonstration against economic injustice. He understood as well as anyone that these two movements – civil rights and labor rights – are inextricably intertwined and their goals essentially the same.”