Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

August 28, 1963 was a seminal moment in American history.  Over 250,000 people came to the nation’s capital from all parts of the country and all walks of life for the largest mass demonstration the country had ever seen, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  While I wasn’t there on that historic day, I remember sitting on the floor in my living room with my family watching the March and seeing a sense of hope for change in my parents’ faces.  I was changed at that moment and knew that my life was going to be better because of the March.

Twenty-five years later, a group of friends and I were discussing the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington and the commemorative events that were happening in Washington D.C. the coming weekend.  We decided at that moment to drive from South Bay, Fla. to celebrate the event that changed the landscape of American culture forever.  We wanted to be there to feel the same sense of excitement, energy, and hopefulness that those who were there in 1963 surely felt as they heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.  

Being there made me more committed to my work as the mayor of South Bay. Mayors have many important responsibilities, but ensuring that all citizens are respected and valued as equals was more than ever a priority for me. 

Now, as the Executive Director of the National League of Cities, I recognize that I am where I am today because of the civil rights movement and the March.  I am fortunate to live and work in our nation’s capital and advocate for cities throughout America on the issues that matter most to them, and work with city leaders to create more vibrant communities that provide economic opportunity, quality education, and plentiful opportunities for their residents.   

As we reflect on and celebrate this historic event, it’s important to remember the long road that America has traveled, the progress we have made, and the important role that local government leaders play in helping the citizens that they represent achieve the dream that Dr. King spoke about so poignantly 50 years ago. 

A Proud Example

NLC’s own Robert Avery, a long-time city councilman from Gadsden, Ala. and Chair of NLC's Finance, Administration & Intergovernmental Relations Committee, understands the connection between local leadership and the civil rights movement more than most.  Robert attended the March when he was just 15 years old, and his story has been featured in national news outlets across the country, from NPR to Time

While most people traveled to the March by bus, train, plain, and even bicycle, Robert traveled by thumb.  He and two of his friends hitchhiked all the way from Gadsden to Washington, D.C. with a combined $10 between them.

When they started their journey, Robert Avery and his friends did not know what lay ahead on the road to Washington, D.C., but they knew they wanted to be part of history, part of something bigger than themselves.  They wanted to be, and indeed were, change makers.

Given his history, it’s no surprise that Robert got involved in local politics later in life.  The connection between the civil rights movement and the work that local officials do is demonstrated most clearly by their shared commitment to improving the quality of life and ensuring equal rights and economic opportunity for the people they are working on behalf of. 

Then and Now

As we at NLC know so well, the work of local officials is never done.  But the work of the civil rights movements is also not finished.  On Saturday, I participated in the National Action to Realize the Dream March.  This event celebrated all that has been achieved in the last 50 years while also recognizing that the struggle for social, economic, and racial justice continues.  

As Dr. King said in his speech 50 years ago, “now is the time to make justice a reality.”  This rings true today, particularly for local leaders.  City officials are at the forefront of advancing change and coming up with creative solutions to the issues they and their constituents grapple with on a daily basis, such as economic inequality, jobs, public safety, and education.  These issues are felt most viscerally at the local level, and as a result cities are taking the lead to find solutions.  Cities recognize that despite the federal gridlock and ideological polarization in Congress, the time to act is now.