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A Sober Look at the 50th Anniversary of “I Have A Dream”

We Have  Dream light brigade

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

50 years ago, on August 28th, 1963, an estimated 250,000 people attended the rally and march on Washington, D.C. where Dr. King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Both his speech and the march have become staples in American history and the civil rights movement of the era.

On Wednesday, August 28th, 2013 an anniversary rally was held to honor the occasion and to reflect on our nation’s history. President Obama spoke on the 28th as well; likely as a symbol of the institutional progress America has made since the historic day 50 years ago.

While the event on the 28th marked the anniversary of the original march in 1963, another march and rally took place on Saturday, August 24th, calling for organization, mobilization, and action. This was the more important day of the two–mainly because this event highlighted the reality of present-day America. Truth be told, there was an obnoxious, but not surprising, political motive behind this march: To vote for the Democrats in the coming election. This element of political posturing likely induced an eye-roll or two, but no one at the march was misled about the institutional digression which has taken place since 50 years ago.

Issues discussed at this rally included Voting Rights (in light of the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965), Trayvon’s Law, the Prison Industrial Complex (also sometimes referred to as “The New Jim Crow”), ALEC (or the American Legislative Exchange Council) which was influential in getting Florida’s Stand Your Ground law passed, the need to raise the minimum wage… and much much more.

Overturn of the Voting Rights Act

Have a look at the “literacy” test Louisiana gave black voters in the 1960s. Things like that were ruled unconstitutional due to the Voting Rights Act. Before the Voting Rights Act was passed people may have had to recite the preamble to the US Constitution from memory to vote. It reads as follows:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

While the above is certainly a notable literary passage it’s hard to see how memorizing it would be crucial to your ability to vote on the issues of they day; or for candidates who would vote on the issues. Nevertheless, for some in North Carolina, it was required prior to the VRA of 1965. The most recent instances of voter suppression in North Carolina (which were also discussed at their weekly event, Moral Mondays) include the removal of one week of early voting and the end of Sunday voting. Sunday voting is a serious attack on blacks and other minorities because very often church groups in those communities organize people to vote on Sundays after church. There was also a poll tax placed on students in North Carolina. If a student wants to vote in a district by their school which is not the same district as their parents, the parents will have to pay $2,500.

Learn about Trayvon’s Law which calls for an end to racial profiling, a repeal of stand your ground-type laws, law enforcement accountability through effective police oversight, improving training and best practices for community watch groups, as well as mandating law enforcement data collection on homicide cases involving people of color.

The Prison Industrial Complex

The United States houses 5% of the world’s total population. It also houses 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Put in perspective, there are around 7 billion people on the planet now. Of those 7 billion, about 8.8 million are incarcerated worldwide; of those 7 billion worldwide, 300 million reside in the United States, and of those 300 million in the United States, 2.2 million are incarcerated. Of those 2.2 million about 70% are minorities and people of color. The Prison Industrial Complex has grown to the point is has due to the profits which can be made from it. Yes. You can actually buy stock in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and watch your money grow the more prisons are built, the more people are incarcerated and the more production is derived from prisons and its prisoners.

“The New Jim Crow” primarily refers to the mass incarceration of people of color; and Latinos to a lesser degree. The drug war is another component of The New Jim Crow. For marijuana alone there are 800,000 people in prison. This is more about race than anything else. Statistically, more whites in suburban areas do drugs than blacks or Latinos in urban areas. The drug war, though, is international so the Prison Industrial Complex (mass incarceration) is the largest domestic component of The New Jim Crow. Poverty is also included in The New Jim Crow.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)

The existence of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law (pushed by ALEC) has made people more aware of ALEC. It is important though to understand the influence of ALEC, in general. ALEC is a non-profit organization where corporate members and legislators come together as equals, and members of ALEC, to debate on policy. Public and private members vote separately on policy after joint debate. As ALEC facilitates policy manipulation and no laws are actually passed, debated or adopted during this process; there is no lobbying which takes place.

“Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations—without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills. ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 of these bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law. ALEC describes itself as a “unique,” “unparalleled” and “unmatched” organization.” (Source)

Following is a list of some of ALEC’s work:

About the 2013 March on Washington

The original march in 1963 drew about 250,000 people. The march on the 24th drew the same number, if not slightly more. Furthermore, the diversity in terms of age, race and gender was remarkable. There is no question that a call to action has been recognized to address inequalities and injustices which have now spread to a very diverse swath of the American public. Important to note is how socially, there has been progress over the past 50 years in how the different sects of the public in America live together and relate to one another. Unfortunately, from an institutional standpoint those who originally found themselves fighting for civil rights back in 1963 have been subjected to increased prejudice since then.

Nevertheless, the march on August 24th was very inspiring and the number of people in attendance certainly rivaled the original march 50 years ago.

Here is a reaction to the crowd from activist Lisa Fithian.

Here is a very positive reaction to the march from an attendee referring to herself as Queen Mother. In this clip, to say the least, she is overjoyed but she is also very motivated to work to bring the youth together as she mentions the upcoming Million Youth March, in Harlem.

“The kids just aren’t learning!”

Another protester was asked this to comment on the institutional digression. In this clip the protester discusses primarily the cuts made to education and the resulting integration of schools.

Over the past 2 years, in New York, 20 schools have been closed in primarily underprivileged areas. Philadelphia has been subjected to this, as well as Chicago which closed 49 of the recommended 54 schools this year. The students belonging to those schools then get sent to another building where two schools are co-located. When this happens those students end up having to readjust to a new social environment while they are getting their educations. Not only thi,s but the teachers as well have to adjust to a larger student body that is also adjusting to a new group of classmates. The only thing that really doesn’t readjust is the space provided for education after co-location.

Usually the justification for closing the schools is a lack of resources, a deficit, or poor student performance. At the same time, though, Chicago found the money to build a multimillion dollar sports complex the same year as the closings. Also, in general this country spends 10′s of thousands of dollars to pay for prison inmates, for example. Far less money is put towards educational systems which could keep said kids out of trouble and out of prison (and we’ve established the Prison Industrial Complex houses mostly Black and Latinos, who are most affected by school closures). Also, a failure to tax the wealthy will often result in a deficit. When you have a deficit and don’t fund education properly you very often end up with poor student performance as they are not given the resources they need. All together it makes for a very convincing argument that education is just not working and there is legitimate reason to close schools and invest in privatized education. “The kids just aren’t learning!”

Needless to say a call to action had been recognized and the crowds proved it. Watch footage of a march led by the NAACP.

Read a summary of the march here.

Dr. King’s legacy was one of non-violence. It was not a legacy of non-violence because King did not believe in standing up for oneself (the entire civil rights movement was about standing up for yourself). It was a legacy of non-violence because at the time no matter how much black people were beaten, if there was even the slightest retaliation, the retaliation would be what made the news. Today, we look back and see the virtues of non-violent civil disobedience as a sign of love, and a peaceful redress of grievances. Back then it was much more strategic.

Enter the NYC Light Brigade

To honor Dr. King’s legacy, the NYC Light Brigade went up to D.C. to take part in the march on the 24th, but also to remember the civil rights leader, in their own way, the night before. In addition to attending in support of the anniversary the Light Brigade had a slightly different message to show. The absurdity of what they ended up dealing with highlighted even more of the institutional digression which has taken place throughout America for everyone.

The NYC Light Brigade joined the Light Brigade Maryland and the Veterans for Peace by the Lincoln Memorial. While both Light Brigade groups proceeded to the steps of the Lincoln memorial for a light show. The Veterans had speak-outs of a sensibly anti-war nature, but there was another element to them…

Introductory talk from the Veterans for Peace.

Veteran Tarak speaks and compares President Obama to Dr. King.

Next a woman addressed the group and read a poem.

Following the speak-outs as the Veterans proceeded to the Vietnam memorial the Light Brigades were already putting on their light shows.

Following the display at the Lincoln Memorial the Veterans and the Light Brigades made their way to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. All they wanted to do was spell the phrase “We Have A Dream.” They were not allowed and as such speak-outs were held to voice discontent.

They did eventually get into the memorial though…

An account from Athena of the NYC Light Brigade

“After we were told by an assault rifle-armed park officer that we were not allowed into the MLK memorial with our letter panels. We realized that taking any shots of our Light Brigade messages in front of the MLK statue would be next to impossible. But we did not just go away. Rather we stood, with our message all lined up in our allotted space: the 3′ wide sidewalk between the water and the monument grounds. Martin Luther King was in fact behind us, but good luck getting back far enough to get any sort of all-encompassing shot. All we needed was to stand a few feet into ‘monument grounds’ to get the shot we needed: Our letters spelling out I HAVE A DREAM and Martin Luther King solemnly looking out over them. There we persisted, trying any calm tactic we could think of: singing ‘We Shall Overcome’, trying to level with the guard (“Come on man, just one picture”), individuals going up and talking to him one-on-one.”

Watch a scene from the confrontation with the US Park Service.

It’s worth noting how the harassment the NYC Light Brigade received at the MLK Memorial may have been related to this anti-protest bill.

The next stop was the White House…

Another account from Light Brigade member Marilu

“In the van on our way to the next location, I mentioned how much you can get away with if you are saying that you are making a video, a movie, or a commercial when it has nothing to do with anything relevant, and are even allowed to go into private areas. When we arrived at the White House, we were told that we were allowed to stand on the street. If on the sidewalk, then we had to keep moving; and to not lean on the fence. It was nighttime, and not many people were around the already unlit White House. As we noticed a group of drunk tourists leaning on the fence without being disturbed, we approached the sidewalk and started to assemble for the picture. ‘What are you guys doing?” one of the policemen asked as he approached us. “We are Art students!!’ I instinctively yelled out, loudly, so that everyone could hear and maybe follow ‘It’s a thesis project (minding our ages). We brought helpers, been working on it for a while, thanks!’ The policeman responded ‘Oh!, heh, OK!… As long as y’all are not protesting or anythin’ like that! heheh.’”

“I could not believe, how, in front of the President’s abode itself, the security was letting us do what we peacefully intended to do in front of the statue of MLK Jr. because we said we were art students. In front of a statue of Dr. King, though, we were not allowed to assemble and take pictures like tourists would. They knew we were protesters and activists, not drunk tourists, or art students making their thesis project, or filming a commercial, so we were harassed.”

“What school are y’all from???” The other guard came up to ask defiantly. “Pratt!, in Brooklyn” I yelled, thinking of how one of the people in our group (Athena) had just told me she went to Pratt and majored in painting. “We came all the way here!”

“So the policemen stood there and watched us take the picture in the sidewalk, with the drunk tourists helping us to hold up the letters as we engaged the small crowd to help us. Some of the younger ‘helpers’ started asking me what we were really doing; and as I started explaining the message and that they were helping the Light brigade with their messaging, they would fill up with pride and smile with their letters.”

Originally published on

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