March on Washington anniversary: Progress made but parts of ‘dream’ remain elusive

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a Penn State professor and a civil rights expert help shed light on what the event really meant — both past and present.

Penn State professor Charles Dumas, who was just a teen at the time he was at the March on Washington, said he traveled to Washington in 1963 with his Chicago-based church group.

“It was an ominous beginning,” Dumas said. “We had been warned to expect anything. Some were predicting violence, Birmingham style. Some were afraid of riots.”

But he added it was quite the opposite.

Dumas sat with a group of 50 others among more than 250,000 attendees. He and his St. Ambrose Church friends settled halfway up the reflecting pool, their feet dangling in the water while taking in the speech.

“We marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the gathering place at the Lincoln Memorial. Everyone was singing and laughing. Strangers greeted strangers like they were family,” Dumas said. “By the time our group has reached the Washington Monument, the police and Army presence had disappeared and with them the last vestiges of fear. Clearly we all understood this was not going to be about violence or riots. Rather joy and hope ruled the day.”

Kirt H. Wilson, associate professor of rhetoric in the communication arts and sciences department and an expert in the civil rights movement, said King’s speech was just the start of civil rights. But he still believes there is a long way to go to completely fulfill King’s dream.

“In terms of the progress we have made is to affirm that since the civil rights movement and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we have made significant and important progress in how we treat one another publicly and in the recognition that racism is morally wrong and has no place in America,” Wilson wrote in an email. “We still have a long way to go in figuring out how to make equality a reality, because many of our structures and systems — education, voting, immigration, prison sentencing, health care and economic opportunities — disproportionally give advantages to some communities and not others. That, ultimately, is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

According to research, Wilson said the answer of whether blacks are better off now depends on the race of the individual.

He said European Americans would answer yes, while those of color have a mixed answer or simply no, he said.

“The perception of Americans is racially biased,” Wilson said. “One thing is, we need to be more honest about the message about King’s speech and what it means for the public, even today.”

He said it’s not just about racial acceptance, but job opportunities and freedom and agreed that King became the voice of civil rights.

“During the civil rights movement, he was one voice of many who were arguing for a change,” Wilson said about King. “I think it’s fair to say that Dr. King, in the years following his tragic assassination, became the voice of the civil rights movement.”

And for Dumas, he said he returned to the same March on Washington spot in 2009 for President Barack Obama’s inauguration and headed back there again this week to celebrate the march’s anniversary.