The Slow Burn of Change

Today is the 50th anniversary of “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

mlk-march-on-washingtonThe 1963 march drew over 200,000 people, at that time the largest demonstration ever held in the nation’s capital. Security was tight for the event. On duty were 5,900 police officers, 2,000 National Guardsmen, and 4,000 soldiers. The sale of liquor was banned in Washington D.C for the first time since Prohibition.

Many of the organizers and those with spots in the program had spent years, decades even, fighting for civil rights. They had been subjected to threats, beatings, numerous arrests. The keynote speaker, Martin Luther King Jr., had been arrested nearly 30 times himself.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has since been immortalized, but it was not the only speech given on that hot summer day. Mrs. Medgar Evers led a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” that included Rosa Parks; remarks were made by the National Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis, now U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district; and speeches were given by Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and others.

A. Philip Randolph in 1963
A. Philip Randolph in 1963

Note the prophetic words spoken that afternoon by A. Philip Randolph, an African-American civil rights leader who was the March Director:

The months and years ahead will bring new evidence of masses in motion for freedom. The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle, but a new beginning not only for the Negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life. Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.”

When you consider that we still face many of these same issues, it seems that little has changed in five decades.

On this same day, in 1917, ten suffragists were arrested while picketing at the White House. They held signs that read, “Mr. President, what will you do for Woman Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” I don’t know about liberty, but it seems that many women are still waiting for equality.

Lucy Burns in prison, 1917.
Lucy Burns in prison, 1917.

One of those suffragists was a woman named Lucy Burns. She co-founded the Congressional Union and the National Woman’s Party. She spent more time in prison than any other American suffragist, and the story of her activism behind bars, and the brutality she endured, is compelling and inspiring.

We are often asked to salute those who have risked their lives on the battlefield of war. Today is a good day to remember and salute those who fought on another kind of battlefield, people like Lucy Burns, A. Philip Randolph, Dr. King, and thousands of men and women whose names you’ll never hear, who marched, went to jail, risked their lives and sometimes lost them, to confront inequality and injustice.

And when we are discouraged that change takes so long, we should keep in mind that the forces which propel social change grow stronger over time, so change is certain. Each succeeding generation embraces a piece of the change that the previous generation resisted.

Sometimes change is a slow burn, simmering beneath our everyday consciousness, a subtle fire that moves over ground imperceptibly, but surely, and if temporarily doused, is always capable of rekindling itself  . . .

There were times when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

– Sam Cooke


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