So much has been said on the anniversary of the March on Washington, an event made historic by the attendance of 250,000 hopeful Americans and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s poetic, immortal words that changed this country and the world.
Yet, I wondered along with President Obama, “What does Dr. King’s dream mean today?” His words “possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time,” the president said, “gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions.”
As I attended the White House celebration of the March anniversary, it was obvious that just my presence among celebrities and political figures represented the enormous progress our country has made toward justice, equality and all the goals the marchers sought half a century ago. I was mindful, conversing with former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, of what my ancestors would think of me, a Black farmer from Bracey, Virginia, there with the first African American president.
I thought about what my Grandfather Thomas Boyd, a relatively powerless Black farmer, would think, or my Grand Daddy Lee Robinson, who died as a sharecropper, if he could see how far we have come.
Yes, much progress has been made since Martin King gave his life for justice for all. But still, so much work remains undone unfinished. Today, as former President Clinton said, we live in a society where it is often easier to buy an assault weapon than it is to vote.
Since the Supreme Court voted to remove important provisions in the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina and other states laws have hastened to pass laws that make voting more difficult. Clearly there is but one way to fix this problem, one way to fulfill King’s dream. We must mobilize and organize as the March on Washington leaders did, to remove from office those elected officials who would block fair election practices from underserved communities.
Most Americans probably have a personal connection to Dr. King’s dream. I have watched his speech many times and even used his words in my own speeches over the years. Any public speaker knows that he had a unique gift, and moreover Dr. King was preaching on a vision from God.
Beyond the deep influence of his words, however, I believe I am a living example of what King dreamed. No one believed the Black farmers would be victorious in the halls of Congress as they sought fairness in federal lending. During the decades I spent lobbying Congress for redress for Black farmers, I was ridiculed for riding my mules, ‘Struggle’ and ‘Justice’ to Washington to protest racial bias in USDA farm loans.
Although I faced much opposition, there were no dogs or fire hoses preventing my efforts to protest a failed bill for compensation to Black farmers. Instead the opponents were well-dressed legislators blocking equal treatment for the needy.
As President Obama said: “There were those elected officials who found it useful to practice the old politics of division, doing their best to convince middle-class Americans of a great untruth—that government was somehow itself to blame for their growing economic insecurity—that distant bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant.
There is much work to be done. How can we rest when fast food workers labor to live on $7.35 hour? We need better pay for good teachers, fairness for bus drivers, and a decent wage for all who do the necessary, but undervalued tasks in our society. Their low earnings put more money in the pockets of the affluent. The gap between the rich and poor is too wide and still growing.
The march on Washington 50 years ago taught us that we as a nation can overcome any injustice if we work together. President Obama said the March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together.
Today we have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellowship and reach again for a common destiny. We must revive the coalition of conscience that found expression in our nation’s capital on one bright, sacred day 50 years ago. Perhaps we can find the answer as we celebrate Labor Day.
(John W. Boyd, Jr. is a fourth-generation Black farmer, businessman and civil rights activist. He is a founder and president of the non-profit National Black Farmers Association.)