The March on Washington: A legacy lost

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On this anniversary of the March on Washington, I am sure that a host of speakers who see themselves as the next generation of civil rights leaders, and claim the mantle and moral authority of Martin Luther King, will be jostling for their time in the spotlight. Tragically, little remains of the legacy of King and other civil rights leaders who were dedicated to the pursuit of justice through nonviolent means.  

King led a movement that sought inclusion by insisting that America live up to its promise of freedom and justice for all. No other single person, perhaps, suffered more for the cause of justice than King, and his life was a witness to the power of redemption. As he declared in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech

“Violence, as a way of achieving racial justice, is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent, rather than win his understanding: It seeks to annihilate, rather than convert.” 

Having suffered attacks — including two bombings of his house, a near-fatal stabbing, and continual death threats to his family — King would not be moved from his conviction in the power of nonviolence. In his words, “I could either respond with bitterness, or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.” 

Other civil rights leaders who bonded with King’s message took the risks and endured the suffering necessary to achieve the ultimate goal, including the late Congressman John Lewis and a lesser-known, but equally noble figure, the Rev. Charles Billups. A leading crusader in Alabama, Billups and two of his Black co-workers were dragged into cars when they left their night-shift jobs. Billups was chained to a tree and savagely beaten. The four Klansmen who attacked him placed a hot branding iron on Billups’s stomach that left the letters “KKK” as a permanent scar. Later, one of the assailants became remorseful and came to Billups’s home, offering to turn himself in. Instead of demanding retribution, Billups declined to press charges and prayed with his attacker. A remarkable testimony to the power of forgiveness, the two men came together and made joint appearances to speak against racism and promote reconciliation.

These righteous leaders were patriots of this country. They honored America’s founding principles and demanded that it live up to the promise enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 

Today’s planned March on Washington will be a sad departure from the gathering of a quarter-million people in 1963. Led by Al Sharpton and his National Action Network, expect to hear speeches that echo the mantra of racial grievance, condemning the nation’s founding values and principles. In a full-throated condemnation of America, the politics of resentment and bitterness will be on full display. While the original purpose of the march was to address the conditions of Blacks who suffered the pain of discrimination and Jim Crow laws, and those who wore that “crown of thorns” for centuries, expect to see today’s self-proclaimed “marginalized groups” assert their presumed rightful place at the grievance table as peers, using the commandeered moral authority of the civil rights movement as a bludgeon to attack the founding values and virtues of the nation. 

“Black lives matter” was a noble phrase when it signified a demand for justice for blacks. Tragically, it since has been perverted and what once had been a movement of peaceful protest has descended into wanton violence and lawlessness that have taken their greatest toll among the most vulnerable low-income communities.

In the name of social justice for blacks, Black Lives Matter (BLM) turned to condemning capitalism and declaring that the nuclear family is Eurocentric and, therefore, racist. The senseless violence has reached an abyss in which Bibles are burned and the Christian cross has been condemned as a symbol of white supremacy. Violence and looting of a downtown business district in Chicago was proclaimed by one BLM organizer to be a form of reparations. The police have been demonized as an extension of an all-powerful “institutional racism” that supposedly determines the destiny of Black America. Because police are targets of attacks, and even local political leaders fail to support them, many are leaving the profession. Crime has surged this summer, and for decades, Black-on-Black homicides have been the norm in many communities.

The original March on Washington was held to end segregation. What will be the intended goal of the 2020 march? If the speakers follow the lead of those at the recent Democratic National Convention, every problem facing Black America will be attributed to institutional and systemic racism. There will be silence about the horrendous violence that is sweeping our cities. Not a single speaker will be able to identify the steps to be taken to end racism and how it would improve the condition of those living in these killing fields. The message that will come from the stage to low-income Blacks is: “You are exempt from any personal responsibility for being agents of your own uplift. You must wait for white Americans to accede to the demands of the elites to be freed of your self-destruction.”

Martin Luther King brought a very different message: “Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred, rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue, rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”

Robert L. Woodson, Sr. is the president and founder of the Woodson Center. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.

Tags Al Sharpton Black Lives Matter Civil rights movement John Lewis March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Martin Luther King Racial protests

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