The Dream Lives On: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Part 2

Read Part 1 of NLC Executive Director Clarence Anthony's Reflections on the March on Washington.

On August 28, I had a chance to participate in the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony to commemorate an event that impacted my life 50 years ago and reminded me why the work we do in cities throughout America is so important. I started my day at the Lincoln Memorial, the hallowed ground where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others spoke 50 years ago, listening to a recording of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” a speech so memorable and often quoted that it’s become part of the American lexicon.

To sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and hear the many speakers reflect on the changes, challenges and opportunities that we as Americans today have, just as we did on August 28th, 1963, was both a humbling and hopeful experience for me. But what was most poignant was that speaker after speaker, from Rep. John Lewis to President Obama, acknowledged that while so much has changed for the better, we are still not where we should be in terms of economic, social and racial equality .

What are the changes brought about by the March? It is widely credited as helping to pass both the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. And as President Obama so eloquently stated, “Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed. Because they marched, America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities.”

What are the challenges we still face? The Voting Rights Act has been weakened. There is a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor in our cities. As President Clinton noted in his speech, the position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded. There are many more examples that I could share here, but the bottom line is that although we have come a long way, we still have some ways to go.

I know that if not for the sacrifice and debt that Dr. King paid, I would not be in the role as Executive Director of the National League of Cities. I know that the diversity that is represented in our organization would not exist, and we would likely not have an African American President in office today if Dr. King had not tirelessly fought for equality for people of all races and cultures.

I left the March renewed in my desire to continue to pay my debt by making America’s cities a better place for all citizens, helping to create policies that support economic growth for all and to fight against suppression of any person’s rights. I have had the honor to work with so many dedicated city leaders and advocates, and see the passion they have for their work on behalf of cities, families and children. At NLC we have a responsibility to help city leaders build better communities, and we understand that the work we do on a daily basis does have an impact on people’s lives. That is what drives us. This is the way we pay our debt. This will be our legacy.

The “Dream” is still achievable because we live in a great country. I could not agree with the President more when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said, “People of good will, regardless of party, are too plentiful for those with ill will to change history's currents.”