At 3 p.m. on August 28, the toll of bells echoed from churches, schools and institutions across America. Millions heard the synchronized bell ringing that marked the seminal moment in civil rights history punctuated by the final refrain of Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful message to this nation: “Let freedom ring.â€
It was during that hour some 50 years ago that the Baptist preacher, the galvanizing force of a movement, delivered his “I Have A Dreamâ€ speech. He addressed men and women — 250,000 strong, mostly African American – who came from southern hamlets and urban hubs to Washington, DC to march for jobs and freedom. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — the monument of the Great Emancipator — his soaring speech inspired the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised to claim their inherent right to first-class citizenship. His words awakened the slumbering white masses that had accepted the segregated status of their fellow citizens, willing to be oblivious to the degradation, deprivation and violence that accompanied Jim Crow. He issued a challenge to America to fulfill its broken promises —”America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked insufficient funds — as he pushed for immediate nonviolent change — “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”
The “Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call To Actionâ€ was the culmination of a week that gave Americans of different hues and generations the opportunity to recognize men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to open the doors of equality. From the White House to grassroots organizations, political and civil rights leaders used the occasion for more than homage and reflection. Event speakers — including civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Al Sharpton, actor Jamie Foxx, National Urban League CEO Marc Morial, entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among others — sought to ignite a new sense of activism among attendees to address a range of issues, from gun violence and education reform to health care and immigration.
They attempted to capture the momentum palpable among the legions of marchers five decades ago. ThenÂ the demands included comprehensive civil rights legislation, desegregation of public schools and voting rights. And when King and other civil rights leaders — includingÂ the 23-year-old Lewis, the youngest speaker and today only surviving organizer of the 1963 gathering — delivered marching orders, the troops responded. They went back to local communities fired up, engaging in activities to advance the cause. Some volunteered to help with voting registration efforts. Many participated in boycotts of merchants promoting discriminatory practices. Others fought to integrate public accommodations and institutions. Within two years, the promise of real change came with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Each battle was hard won. The cost of victory was more than worn shoe leather or exhaustive political wrangling. It was life and death.
At the ceremony, President Obama shared names of casualties of foot soldiers who had been on the front lines of the movement. His list included civil rights leader Medgar Evers; civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; President John F. Kennedy, killed just 86 days after the March; his brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, slain during his 1968 presidential campaign; and King, assassinated five years after the March and one day after his poignantly prophetic “I’ve Been To The Mountaintopâ€ speech. And there were countless innocent children, law-abiding citizens, freedom riders and volunteers.
All Americans owe a debt to the victims who were tragically in the line of fire as well as the countless fallen heroes who contributed to this country’s reconstruction. Beyond African Americans, there have been a myriad of beneficiaries over the past five decades: women, Latinos, the LGBT community, the physically challenged — any group that has faced discrimination or been denied access to full participation in the American Dream at some point. These groups were represented among the Let Freedom Ring speakers,Â aÂ more diverse collection than the 1963 March. They’re part of our changing America decreasingly being dominated by white males, components of a growing progressive, multiculturalÂ coalition.