50 Years Ago at the Lincoln Memorial

Fifty years ago, on August 28th, I stood in the dense and expectant crowd near the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King. I had come to Washington, DC from deep in Georgia, where, working as a summer law intern for a black civil rights attorney, I personally witnessed the vicious racism -- and the social and legal structures supporting it -- that obstructed our every effort at simple justice. It was remarkable how King soared over these obstacles and reached into every listener's heart with his dream that all people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

On the train going north from Albany, Georgia where I was based, I saw King's hope embodied. At every station, and it was a local train, people, most of whom were black, boarded, with shining eyes and hope wreathing their faces. I was both surprised and glad to see that, since after two months in Albany, I had a taste of what life in the South was like for blacks, and it wasn't an environment that generated much hope.

In the summer of 1963, Jim Crow was in full swing. Voting rights for blacks were almost non-existent. Public facilities and public accommodations such as restaurants or movie theaters were segregated and at times entirely closed to blacks. In some places, blacks even had to get off the sidewalk to let whites pass. In Albany that summer, to avoid integrating the public swimming pool, the town sold it to a private owner to keep it open for white only. In those broiling hot days, it was pitiful to see little black kids watching from behind a chicken wire fence while the white kids cooled off in the pool.

Any protest of these conditions, no matter how peaceful, no matter how focused on civic minded goals like voter registration or integrating a library, was swiftly and ruthless put down by the police, who often resorted to violence, using electric cattle prods and dogs. The local criminal justice system was the enforcement arm of segregation, while the federal authorities turned a deaf ear to pleas for protection for those seeking to exercise their civil rights or to register voters. It was exceedingly dangerous for anyone challenging the racial status quo. That June, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi. In September, four black girls were killed in the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church. Those of us from the North were called "outside agitators," and the hostility to us was palpable. Shortly after I arrived in Albany, the policed started following me, and, it seemed, tapping the phones where I was staying. One of my first thoughts after getting to Albany that summer was "this can't be America."

Despite these conditions, the "Movement" kept on going, sustained by an unquenchable thirst for freedom and an irrepressible hope that it would inevitably come. In Albany, protesters against segregation would sing Movement songs and church hymns to get their spirits up before going off to demonstrate, and would keep on singing even after they had been arrested and put in jail. "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round" was what they sang and how they lived.

Fifty years later, Jim Crow is gone and segregation is illegal. The color barrier has been broken in many areas, including the presidency. Yet, the legacy of Jim Crow persists. Too many people of color are mired in poverty. Educational equality remains elusive and too many schools are segregated in fact. Job discrimination endures, albeit in a much more nuanced form. And attempts to prevent progress are in the ascendency. The worst of these is the effort to block blacks and poor people from voting, and the assistance recently given to that cause by the US Supreme Court in striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act.

When I think of those who died struggling for the right to vote -- James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, Viola Liuzzo, just to name a few -- and how glibly the Supreme Court dealt with the ongoing efforts to stifle to votes of people of color, I get livid.

But the lesson taught by King and those who fought for freedom 50 years ago was not to give up and to keep hope alive. If we rededicate ourselves to the values and rights they struggled for, if we don't abandon the fight against the evils of racism and poverty, we can and will overcome. And as King said: "How much longer? Not much longer."