Remembering the “Mother of All Marches”

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Louisvillian Raoul Cunningham was a 22-year-old college student when he participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Half a century later, Cunningham, who now heads the Louisville NAACP, questions how much the march improved employment or equality for African-Americans in the years since.

This weekend, thousands will caravan to Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the monumental civil rights event. Nearly 250,000 people crowded together on the National Mall on August 28, 1963 to peacefully demonstrate for racial equality in rights and economic opportunities. For Cunningham, participating in the march was a natural extension of his activism that began when we has a teenager. During the civil rights era, Cunningham was arrested on several occasions at demonstrations he helped organize.

“At that point, civil rights was in the forefront and on every African-American college student’s mind,” says Cunningham. “You didn’t know that we would be sitting here today talking about a commemoration of the March on Washington. We didn’t know it was the mother of all marches at that time,” he added.

The most dramatic outcome of the march came less than a year later when Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. You can watch excerpts of the signing ceremony and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s remarks here.

Recent events have prompted some to question the flat-lining or even regression of equality: U.S. Supreme Court rulings rolling back affirmative action and pre-clearance provisions of voting rights laws; disproportionate incarceration of minorities; higher than national average jobless numbers among blacks; and even the verdict in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post Media Group has been examining the state of black America. I spoke with him last month in Washington and he explained what prompted the Huffington Post to investigate civil rights progress since the 1963 march.

This weekend on Connections with Renee Shaw, we’ll reflect on the March on Washington and the dramatic events that precipitated it. Former Kentucky State Senator Georgia Davis Powers tells how the Washington march inspired planning for a civil rights march on Kentucky’s capitol that would occur seven months later. Independent journalist and adjunct professor Betty Baye shares her memories and the importance of studying the movement for a deeper perspective on current issues.

Connections with Renee Shaw airs Friday at 5 p.m. on KET2 and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on KET.

PBS will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington with a full week of special programming. A highlight includes a new documentary that reveals the dramatic story behind the massive demonstration. It features interviews with Harry Belefonte, Julian Bond, Oprah Winfrey, Andrew Young, and more. The March premiers Tuesday at 9 p.m. on KET. Learn more about the PBS coverage and online events at pbs.org/marchonwashington.

Raoul Cunningham says he’s excited about the celebrations, but is eager to see if the commemorations will inspire new efforts to expand the franchise of civil rights. In his words, “there is still a civil rights battle.”

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