Dreams Come True

August 27, 1993

The 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington by a coalition of civil rights groups will be marked with another march Saturday. It is unlikely that it will be the catalyst the original was. No one expects the 200,000-plus marchers of 1963. One reason for this is that despite the real problems related to race that remain on the nation's agenda, much of Martin Luther King Jr.'s immortal dream has come true.

Dr. King was one of several speakers at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. He concluded his plea for racial justice and harmony by declaring that he dreamed of the children of former slaves and former slave owners sitting together in brotherhood in the South, of his own children not being judged by the color of their skin, and so on.

In law, and to a lesser degree in fact, the nation has become color-blind in the past 30 years. Laws that prevented blacks and whites from jointly using private and public facilities have been overturned. Barriers to employment have been lowered if not yet removed entirely. There is far greater (though not enough) inter-racial harmony and mutual respect than in 1963.

Now as then blacks are disproportionately less well off economically than whites. That is the rationale for an anniversary march -- to do something about this and other, non-race-related inequities. But the economic gap has been closed significantly in the past 30 years. Furthermore, federal and state government efforts to ameliorate the harsh effects of poverty and to assist its victims to rise out of it have burgeoned. Public spending on education and health for the poor, even after the dampening effects of the Reagan-Bush years, is at a level largely undreamed of in 1963.

Polls showed in 1963 that as far as the specific goals of the civil rights movement, there was little immediate change attributable the March on Washington. About half of all Americans thought the effort was going too fast in July and still did in September. But the percentage of Americans then who said race relations was the nation's most important problem soared from 4 to 52. The March on Washington put civil rights on the front burner.

It did something else. Dr. King's eloquence and the good-natured optimism and determination of the marchers changed the mood of the national debate. Slowly, a majority began to emerge favoring President John Kennedy's civil rights bill. As October polls reflected this trend, John Kennedy's commitment to the bill became stronger.

New marchers with new causes can draw lessons from this history. The American people are sometimes slow to perceive some wrongs, but when unfairness and injustice are brought to their attention, they will act to see grievances redressed. In America, dreams can come true.

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