Democratic lawmakers used the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary to call on Congress to act on a host of stalled priorities Wednesday — tempering a celebration on the National Mall of the nation’s progress since Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with areas where the “dream” has fallen short.
Each said significant progress has been made since the summer of 1963, where civil rights activists were threatened and subjected to brutality while working to desegregate buses, lunch counters and voting booths throughout the South. But there were no shortages of calls for Congress to act and laments about the state of the nation’s politics.
President Barack Obama used the moment to rally support for his economic agenda. And Democratic lawmakers noted the rates of incarceration of African-Americans, New York City’s stop-and-frisk policies, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and the Supreme Court’s overturning of a key section of the Voting Rights Act, among other issues.
Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke at the event about the need to continue fighting for justice, speaking in broad terms.
“It’s a new day 50 years later and a better day, but the day is not over. Today’s struggle for civil rights, social justice, and economic opportunity demand our engagement and our voice,” said Edwards. “We must lift our voices for wages that enable families to take care of themselves, for a health care system that erases disparities, for communities and homes without violence, for clean air and water to protect our environment for future generations, and for a just justice system. We must lift our voice for the value of our vote and have our votes counted without interference.”
CBC Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, challenged Congress to tackle jobs, hunger and criminal justice disparities: “Now it is up to us, the Congress of the United States of America, to work together to pass a jobs bill that ensures decent jobs for all of our citizens. Now it is up to us to ensure that we have a criminal justice system that does not value one life more than another. Now it is up to us to make sure that no child goes hungry to school or to bed.”
Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J., another member of the CBC, said recent events serve as stark reminders that there is more work to do. “From the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and newly passed state voting requirements, to the Trayvon Martin tragedy and stop-and-frisk, it is clear that the struggle continues,“ he said in a statement.
And Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is eyeing a presidential bid in 2016, told the crowds at the Lincoln Memorial that there are “still too many lives in America taken from us by violence, still too many children in America who go to bed hungry, who go to school hungry. Still too much apathy when the lives of people of color are too often valued less than the lives of white people.”
No GOP lawmakers spoke at the anniversary celebration on Wednesday, but many weighed in remotely.
Some, like Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., narrowed in on King’s call for the attainment of the elusive American dream: “We must continue to strive for justice for all as envisioned by Dr. King, and work to ensure that the American Dream remains a possibility for all Americans. Dr. King was a true inspiration, and I thank God for his courage and leadership that has changed our nation for the better.”
Others kept things short and sweet, perhaps just seeking to go on the record with a nod to the famous civil rights leader.
Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., sent out a statement of just three sentences: “Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most powerful and significant speeches in the history of our nation. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in our nation’s capital, he stirred and inspired the hearts of Americans with his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Today, we honor his amazing legacy and strive to live out the principles he championed.”
And then there was the statement from Republican State Leadership Committee President Chris Jankowski, who sought to connect King’s words with the future of a “big tent” Republican Party.
“We must work together as a nation to open the doors of opportunity and leadership, and we must each do our part to recruit and support new leaders to run for office from underrepresented communities across the country,” Jankowski said. “We know our party, and much more importantly our nation, works best when we invite everyone to the table to solve our nation’s problems.”
In Jankowski’s statement, “everyone” is italicized and in bold lettering.
The most powerful statement of the day might have come from Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who was nearly beaten to death during Freedom Summer and spoke at the march 50 years ago.
“Sometimes I hear people saying, nothing has changed,” he said Wednesday, “but for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress, makes me want to tell them, come and walk in my shoes.”