Partisan Politics Creep Into “I Have A Dream” Anniversary

The agenda of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington stands in contrast to the unifying nature of Dr. King

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Decades after his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has become one of the few unifying figures in Washington. House Speaker John Boehner will say he  “showed how much good a single life could do in a short period,” while President Obama speaks of him as “quintessentially American.” But the realities of staging 50th anniversary celebration for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1963 March on Washington are a bit more complicated, with clear partisan divides.

While President Obama will join former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter to speaking at the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony next Wednesday, Republican leaders have largely chosen not to take part in the week’s major events. Instead, Boehner held an event to commemorate the march last month, and Republicans will gather on Capitol Hill Monday for a separate luncheon honoring the march.

In a separate event on Saturday, activists plan to repeat the march on the mall with a rally that is welcome to all, but with an issue set, from immigration reform to voting rights, that strikes at the heart of Washington’s partisan divide. Called the “National Action to Realize the Dream” march and rally, the event will feature civil rights groups, labor groups, LGBT groups, and women’s rights groups that hope to continue the fight for justice King led throughout the 1960s. Democratic members of Congress John Lewis and Nancy Pelosi, along with Attorney General Eric Holder, are expected to attend and speak.

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Organizers say the event has no partisan design. “Like most great peaceful assemblies, I don’t think anyone is going to consider who is Republican or Democrat when they’re marching,” said Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, who is helping to organize the event. “This march will lead us to all build a stronger sense of public purpose and public will. We are hopeful for that.”

But Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network is hosting the rally in conjunction with Martin Luther King III’s Realizing the Dream organization, detailed the focus of the march in a piece for the Huffington Post on Tuesday. Many of the central issues he mentioned push partisan buttons, including voting rights, “Stand Your Ground” laws, stop and frisk practices by police departments, high rates of unemployment, and immigration reform.

“As a new generation that grew up in the aftermath of the ’60s movement, we’ve worked diligently to make Dr. King’s dream a reality,” wrote Sharpton. “But when jobs and justice are still key issues plaguing society today, we have no choice but to call on everyone to gather once again.”

(Cover Story: Martin Luther King Jr: Architect of the 21st Century)

In some ways, the liberal tone is an appropriate commemoration. The message of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was progressive, if not radical. Protesters held signs that read, “We demand and end to bias now!” at a time when it was illegal for blacks and whites to use the same public restrooms; “We march for higher minimum wages for all workers now,” when many African Americans across the south couldn’t even get hired.

Fifty years down the road the U.S. has seen great progress; but like the summer of 1963, the summer of 2013 has been marked with moments of stark divide across both race lines and party lines. Seventy-nine percent of black Americans and 44% of whites according to a recent Pew poll believe there is a lot to be done in order to achieve racial equality.

When the George Zimmerman verdict was announced, according to a Washington Post poll 86% of blacks disapproved of the verdict, and 31% of whites disapproved. When the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Republican governors across the South pushed legislation that many felt hindered minority voters’ access to the polls, while many Democrats condemned the decision of the court.

“The march is distinctly about issues the civil rights community and the civil justice community think are important. These are values we all hold very close and dear,” Morial said.

(SPECIAL: One Dream: Explore MLK’s Historic Speech 50 Years Later)