Thinking about the recently celebrated 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, my thoughts returned to the profound intellectual, political, and moral transformation many of us experienced about civil rights, the pursuit of peace, and the fundamental need for economic and social justice that resulted from the first historic March.
After the August 28, 1963 March many of us, young and old, Black and white, men and women, straight and gay, of all class, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds came to the realization that we had to march, to protest, to sing and shout, and to organize to continue to work for peace and justice.
As the years unfolded we studied and learned more about the historic struggle for justice that began hundreds of years before August, 1963 and after the March on Washington, we realized, the struggle would not end.
And over the years the analyses, visions, and political practices of all of us, even the organizers and speakers at the first March, changed. Dr. King himself said in a famous speech at Riverside Church in New York in 1967 that social and economic justice cannot be achieved at home while we were engaged in massive war against the Vietnamese people. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Dr. King’s understanding of the economic dimension of racial injustice deepened as well. Again in 1967 he said: “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
The March on Washington of 2013 had an even broader agenda than the event of fifty years ago. The National Action Network, the organization that launched the event, identified nine key talking points that inspired it: jobs and the economy; voting rights; workers’ rights; stand your ground laws and gun violence; women’s rights; immigration; LGBT equality; environmental justice, and youth. During the event itself these issues were addressed as speakers emphasized over and over that the 50th Anniversary March on Washington was “not just a commemoration, but a continuation of the efforts of 50 years ago.”
While remembering August, 1963 and watching on television videos of many of the 1963 speakers calling for economic and social justice (Dr. King was one of ten inspirational speakers from labor, the civil rights, religious, and youth communities), I received my weekly electronic newsletter from Congressman Todd Rokita, from the 4th Congressional District, Indiana. To his credit, Rokita sends weekly newsletters to any constituents who request them.
The Rokita report of August 23, 2013, discussed his travels around the district but did not mention the 50th Anniversary March that was to occur on August 24. Instead, he highlighted what he claimed were three of the “more frequent topics that I am being asked about at events.”
First, Rokita mentioned what he called “Our Nation’s $17 Trillion Debt.” As a member of the House Budget Committee, he promised to work to reduce it.
Second, Rokita listed “Immigration” as an issue raised at his meetings. He indicated he opposed immigration reform proposals recommended by President Obama and endorsed by the United States Senate. “Any immigration reform must focus on border security first.”
Third, Rokita wrote about “Obamacare.” He assured his constituents that he would continue to vote against the Affordable Care Act because “Obamacare is a train wreck. Costs are skyrocketing and Americans are finding out they cannot keep their doctors or their health care plans.”
Rokita reported on a statement by one attendee whose comments were in the spirit of The March on Washington. The Congressman said the attendee “wanted Washington to be more civil, and also take care of everyone’s needs.” Rokita suggested that this attendee must realize that “government shouldn’t and can’t be everything to everyone.” He suggested his audience read three books: Friederich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom; Mark Levin, Liberty and Tyranny: a Conservative Manifesto; and Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. The first and second are conservative diatribes that warn of excessive government and claim that unfettered markets can solve all our problems and the third is a commentary by a French political theorist who visited the United States in 1831 and wrote about that experience.
Six months prior to Rokita’s newsletter, the great civil rights activist and performing artist, Harry Belafonte spoke of an alternative view, articulated by Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States.
Paraphrasing, Belafonte reported that Roosevelt “said that when the state finds itself moving away from its commitment to the rights of the citizen, when those rights are being trampled and misguided, when there are those who would wrest from the Constitution the equality that it attempted to give all of us, then the citizens of the nation have not only the obligation, but the right, to challenge the state and those who run it. And, he said, if we fail to do that, if we fail to meet that moral criteria, then we, the citizens, should be charged with patriotic treason.”
Fortunately, contemporary generations of workers, occupiers, peace activists, anti-racists, women’s liberationists, gay rights activists, and environmentalists are heeding the call to carry on the legacy of the Marches on Washington, advocating what Roosevelt called meeting the “moral criteria” embedded in the U.S. Constitution. Congressman Rokita’s newsletter, unfortunately, reflected an approach to government that would fail to meet this test.