Heroes and marches
Today people march all over the country to express their anger and indignation over pork; not the pork that raises our cholesterol levels but the kind representing public funds that somehow ended up in the coffers of bogus nongovernment organizations controlled by legislators. Officially known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), it has come to mean assistance for their personal priorities rather than for the needs and requirements of the community.
By coincidence, this week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest marches in history, one that changed the face of a nation and moved it closer to realizing the dreams of one man, dreams not just for his people, but for all men.
On Aug. 28, 1963, more than 200,000 people, mostly black, but including a number of prominent members of the white community, participated in what was dubbed as a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The event was timed to mark the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, an action that freed Negro slaves in America.
The highlight of the “March on Washington” that was organized by individuals such as singers Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez, student leaders John Lewis and Julian Bond, and others, was Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Departing from his text when prodded on by Mahalia Jackson to “tell ’em about the dream,” King spoke extemporaneously and came up with what has been ranked as the top American speech of the 20th century by a poll of scholars of public address.
Some of King’s dreams.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…’”
Barely two weeks after his speech, members of the Klu Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young Negro girls. Three months later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
The “March on Washington” did not produce immediate results but the pressure on the US Congress for change was too much to ignore. In 1964, it passed the US Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex or national origin. It ended racial segregation in schools, the workplace and public facilities. Incidentally, it was not early enough for Gen. Colin Powell, the first African-American to serve as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a captain returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam, he was denied service at a drive-in hamburger joint just outside Fort Benning, Georgia. A year later, the Voting Rights Act came into force prohibiting discrimination in voting on account of race or color. It prohibited imposing voting conditions and requirements aimed at denying any citizen the right to vote.
Martin Luther King Jr. said in his speech, “1963 is not an end but a beginning.”
How has the Negro fared so far? Some benchmarks.
In education, today, 21 percent of blacks hold a bachelor’s degree or higher as compared to only 4 percent in 1960. In government, today, there are 43 black representatives in Congress as against five in 1960. There is one black president. They have traveled far, but many say they still have a long way to go.
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In March 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led a march from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to the coastal village Dandi near the sea, a distance of 390 kilometers. His purpose was to produce his own salt, therefore avoiding payment of the salt tax. The English had established a salt monopoly and Gandhi’s march to the sea was a challenge to British authority.
Everyone use salt in India and the salt tax was deeply symbolic of the demand for political rights. Gandhi declared “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.”
Thousands of Indians joined him along the way, sparking large-scale acts of civil disobedience. He was arrested and jailed but his “March to the Sea” would draw worldwide attention to the Indian independence movement. Foreign journalists covering the march made him a household name in Europe and America.
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Protest marches, peaceful or violent, do not always result in success.
On Feb. 15, 2003, antiwar protests took place in more than 600 cities in 60 countries expressing opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq. The event has been described by researchers as the largest protest gathering in human history. In Rome alone, it involved around three million people and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “largest antiwar rally in history for a single city.”
The whole movement was precipitated by a speech President George W. Bush delivered at the UN General Assembly in September 2002. He declared that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was violating UN resolutions primarily on weapons of mass destruction and had to be stopped. A month after the February protests, the invasion of Iraq proceeded. Hussein was captured and executed. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. More than 4,000 American soldiers lost their lives, along with several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians. Today Iraq is in constant turmoil with almost daily bombings and terror attacks.
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In June 1989, student-led demonstrations erupted in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Triggered by the death of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, activists numbering in the millions gathered at the Square demanding reforms. After talks with student leaders failed, troops with assault rifles and tanks attacked the protestors resulting in widespread bloodshed. There are no accurate casualty figures.
Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer, was deposed in a power struggle with communist hardliners. His successor Zhao Ziyang was also replaced by Jiang Zemin. Among the prominent student leaders was Wang Dan who was imprisoned and eventually allowed to leave for the United States.
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Like the “March on Washington,” today’s “Million People March” should represent more of a beginning, the start of continued vigilance, not an end. We, too, have a long, long way to go.