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Wednesday, Aug. 28, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the famous 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the hundreds of thousands of people assembled on the National Mall. It is an iconic moment in American history, poised as it was on the eve of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
President John F. Kennedy, our first Catholic president, had tried to discourage the March, sensing possible trouble. I was twelve years old at the time, with only dim memories of what was going on, though I grew up in the Washington suburbs of Rockville, Maryland. I think my mother wanted to go down to the March, but my father discouraged it, as she had her hands full with their brood of what would become thirteen children. I do wish I had been there.
The invocation was delivered by our Catholic archbishop of Washington, Patrick A. O'Boyle, who incidentally administered the sacrament of Confirmation to me around that time. He was the first resident archbishop of Washington, D.C., and would soon become a cardinal. One of the first things he had done upon becoming archbishop was to desegregate Catholic parishes and hospitals and schools, fully five years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education.
I discovered when I was in Pittsburgh earlier this month that the March on Washington had a Depression-era precedent. Pittsburgh pastor Father James Cox had led a march of twenty-five thousand unemployed workers and Veterans on Washington in early 1932 to ask for government relief from the Depression. On their way to Washington from western Pennsylvania, the Marchers passed through Gettysburg, whose battle we just commemorated the 150th anniversary of. Father Cox wrote at the time: "The men in the long, tired column behind me [are] fighting a different kind of war. Theirs is a war that has only just begun--a struggle to free civilization from the curse of poverty and unemployment, a battle that will end in final victory when every man has a job that will permit him not only to exist, but to enjoy a real American standard of living."
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was fighting a similar war, beginning with the injustice of racial segregation. He had a dream of an America where "one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." "Today," noted Joshua Muravchik, who was present at the 1963 March, "the only substantial body of opinion that would deny King's dream that his children 'not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,' consists in supporters of racial preferences for minorities."
We have indeed come a long way in this country towards racial equality and social justice. We still have a ways to go, of course. But we would do well to remember that the success of the Civil Rights Movement was largely due to its religious inspiration: "When we allow freedom to ring--when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.'"
Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.