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The unfinished march.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington in 1963, which is best remembered for Martin Luther King's electrifying "I Have a Dream" speech, black leaders have called on African-Americans and others to come in their thousands to Washington D.C. at the end of August to participate in a special march, a leadership summit, a youth forum and a Global Freedom festival. Leslie Gordon Goffe reports

ONE OF THE ORGANISERS OF THE 50th anniversary of the March on Washington event is Martin Luther King's daughter, Bernice, a Baptist minister and activist like her father. "Join with us in celebrating freedom" implored Bernice King at a press conference in Washington. But veteran civil rights activist John Lewis says there is little for African-Americans to celebrate at the moment.

The last surviving member of the group of civil rights leaders known as "The Big Six", the 73-year-old Lewis was asked recently if he, somehow, got the opportunity to talk to Martin Luther King and other civil rights era leaders today, what he would tell them about the current state of Black America. In 1963 Lewis was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and is today a US congressman. "I would tell them, 'Yes, we made some progress, but we're not there yet'," Lewis replied.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was murdered in Mississippi in June 1963, a few weeks before the March on Washington, says that gains African-Americans made over the past 50 years are being pushed back and reversed, not by gun-toting racists like the Ku Klux Klan thug who shot and killed her husband, but by conservative judges who now dominate the US Supreme Court.

"In 2013, I would say," says Evers-Williams, clearly anxious about the future of Black America, "we are in a crisis situation." What's causing Myrlie Evers-Williams and others in the civil rights community such anxiety is a recent ruling by the US Supreme Court that struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a landmark civil rights law described by one legal commentator as "the noblest legislation in United States history."

The Act prohibits discrimination in voting and prohibits states and local authorities from imposing any practice or procedure" designed to "deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."

But, on 27 June, the Supreme Court's conservative majority, in a 5-4 ruling, overturned Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which has been used by the federal government since 1965 to block discriminatory voting laws. The court said it struck down Section 4 because, in its view, the South, which has a long history of stopping African-Americans from voting, had changed. Thus, it was no longer necessary, the court argued, for the Justice Department in Washington to monitor or intervene in decisions made by election officials in Southern states.

"Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically," Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his judgement. Roberts complained that much of US civil rights law was "based on 40-year-old facts" that have "no logical relationship to the present day".

While this is the view of Chief Justice John Roberts, and the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court, it is not the view of liberal Justices of the court like Stephen Breyer. Breyer wrote that it would be foolish to believe Southern racist practices, long enshrined in all aspects of Southern life, had entirely disappeared over the past 50 years.

"Imagine a state has a plant disease and in 1965 you can recognise the presence of that disease," Justice Breyer wrote. "Now, it's evolved ... but we know one thing: The disease is still there in the state." Breyer is probably right. But Southerners like Robert Bentley, the Republican Governor of Alabama, reject this. Bentley insists there is a "New South" that has renounced racism and renounced, as well, infamous discriminatory voting practices of the past.

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He points to Mississippi, the state where the Ku Klux Klan assassinated Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, as the model of a modern, Southern state. Mississippi, Bentley boasts, has more black elected officials than any other state in America.

Bentley also argues that had the South, and the United States, not experienced a full and fundamental transformation, Barack Obama could not, he insists, have been elected President of the United States. "Much has changed in Alabama and other places where segregation was once the law of the land," Governor Bentley claimed. "Can anyone really argue," he asks, "that Alabama is the same as it was in 1973?"

He has a point. But despite this, many voting rights advocates are worried that without the federal oversight and scrutiny that an undiluted Voting Rights Act provides, Southern states will return quickly to their old, vote-suppressing and vote-manipulating ways. Among the worried is President Obama. "I might not be here as president had it not been for those who courageously helped to pass the Voting Rights Act," he said at a news conference while on a state visit to Senegal in June. And, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has special meaning for Barack Obama. He says that had the law not provided special protections for African American voters, he might never have been elected America's first black president.

"I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision," commented Obama, who described the Voting Rights Act as a "cornerstone of democracy" and said that the Supreme Court Justices who overturned Section 4, one of its key provisions, clearly did not recognise how widespread voter suppression was in the US.

The Justices, Obama said, "made a mistake" when they decided to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. This action will, he says, upset decades of well-established practices intended to make sure voting is "fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent." In a bid to reverse some of what the Supreme Court has done recently, President Obama said he will call on Congress to pass legislation ensuring every American has equal, and unfettered access, when casting their vote. "My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process," the president promised.

And it is not just Obama who is angry at the recent attacks on landmark civil rights legislation. Congressman Lewis is also fuming. "What the court did ... is stab the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart," said Lewis, who led voter registration drives as a student activist in the 1960s. "There has been," he said, "a systematic and deliberate attempt to reverse gains made by African-Americans in the so years since the March on Washington. It took us almost a hundred years to get where we are today." So will it, I Lewis demands anxiously, "take another hundred years to fix it, to change it?"

The Supreme Court ruling dismays Law Professor Charles Ogletree, founder of Harvard University's Institute for Race and Justice. Ogletree, who taught both Barack and Michelle Obama when they attended law school at Harvard, criticised the five Supreme Court Justices whom he says elected to "rip out the heart and soul of the Voting Rights Act".

The Supreme Court Justice that has particularly attracted his ire is Clarence Thomas, the court's only African-American. Thomas has attracted Ogletree's ire because the black jurist is the court's most conservative justice, as well. Though Clarence Thomas grew up poor in the segregated South in the 1950s, with grandparents denied the right to vote, none of this stopped him voting to gut the Voting Rights Act.

Called "ABC", "America's Blackest Child", by cruel kids in the schoolyard as a child, Clarence Thomas is, some say, exacting a terrible revenge upon black people through his damaging judicial decisions in the Supreme Court.

Thomas and the other Justices' decision will, says Law Professor Charles Ogletree, "move African-Americans backwards at a time when voting rights are being threatened at a level not seen since before the Voting Rights Act was passed." While civil rights advocates like Charles Ogletree mourn the damage done to the Voting Rights Act, Republican opponents of the law in the South have been emboldened by the defeat of Section 4, and wasted no time in taking advantage of the legal provision's demise.

Within days of Section 4 being struck down, Republicans in several Southern states began introducing laws requiring voters to have a special voter ID in order to register to vote and in order to cast a ballot in state or local elections. In Texas, a Republican lawmaker boasted that his state's new voter ID law would "go into immediate effect." The same has happened in quick succession in North Carolina, Mississippi, South Carolina and elsewhere.

Voter IDs were banned under Section 4 because it was feared that requiring voters to have a special ID in order to vote would disproportionately affect African-American and Hispanic voters, who, several studies show, are less likely than whites to own the sometimes costly, difficult to attain government-issued voter IDs.

Although conservative opponents of the Voting Rights Act are jubilant at the striking down of the Act's Section 4 provision, most Americans do not seem to share this reaction. A Washington Post--ABC News poll showed most Americans disapproved of the Supreme Court's ruling and worried that the landmark legislation had been badly weakened. Observing what has happened to the Voting Rights Act, which some had thought untouchable, has been a chastening experience for those organising the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, which will take place in the US capital. One of the event's organisers, activist Martin Luther King III (Dr King's oldest child) made clear at a news conference in Washington that he hoped to use the anniversary event to draw attention to the plight of the poor in the US. "We know that in 1963," explained King, "there were Z2M people (in the US) living in poverty." Today, that figure is, he says, approaching 60m, a large number of which are African Americans. This, King says, is "unacceptable in a nation with so much wealth and so many resources and so much ingenuity."

Asked if America was close to achieving the dream his father spoke about in his famous speech, Martin Luther King III said, "I'd like to think that we'd achieved the dream, but I'm sad to say that we have not achieved that dream."

The four-day 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, between 24 and 28 August, will feature among its highlights the King Leadership Summit; a youth forum featuring young people from around the world; and a march from the Lincoln Memorial to the newly built King Memorial.

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On 28 August: the day on which the March on Washington took place 50 years before, there will be a special event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial commemorating Dr King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Asked whether he was concerned that the anniversary would simply be yet another opportunity to venerate his famous father, King seemed affronted and said: "While some will see this as a commemoration," King said, "it is truly a continuation of being in the struggle of organising communities around this nation--again, not just for this day."

Like Martin Luther King III, another of the event's organisers, New York activist and TV personality Reverend AI Sharpton, bristles at the idea the 50th anniversary event is little more than a trip down civil rights' memory lane. "This is not just a nostalgia visit," Sharpton retorted angrily. "We are in a climate that is threatening too much of what was achieved 50 years ago."

Sharpton hopes this 2013 March on Washington will be a rallying point for African Americans, inspiring them to once again become involved in grassroots politics and lend their support to campaign organisations like the NAACP, The Urban League and Dr King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference organisation. Sharpton points out that African-American women will play a much larger role in this March on Washington than they did 50 years ago.

In 1963, none of the official speeches were given by a woman. The entertainer Josephine Baker did, though, get to deliver a brief speech during the preliminary events before the main programme.

Bizarrely, a tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom, among them Rosa Parks, was given by a man, Bayard Rustin, an organiser of the march. Apart from this, women, for the most part, stayed in the shadows, out of the limelight, at the 1963 march. It was the men--Martin Luther King; John Lewis and others--who occupied centre stage.

This time around, women like Dr King's daughter Bernice, a Baptist minister and CEO of Atlanta's King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, will play a central role. "There are thousands, perhaps millions, of young people," she says, "who don't fully realise" how the Voting Rights Act or the March on Washington "connects with who they are today." King wants to use the 50th anniversary event as "a great moment to educate young people about the movement, about where we are today".

The anniversary event will be an opportunity, too, says Al Sharpton, for gay and lesbian activists, who would not have been allowed to participate in the 1963 march, to be seen and heard. "In many ways," says Sharpton, calling for love and understanding at 2013's March on Washington, "we show how far even the civil rights community had to rise, from misogyny and other things and we continue to grow, praying we continue to get better and not bitter."

Martin Luther King would approve.

Leslie Gordon Goffe reports.
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Title Annotation:Anniversary; March on Washington in 1963
Author:Goffe, Leslie Gordon
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2013
Words:2290
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