Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who, as a law student, was on the staff of the 1963 March on Washington, and as a college student attended the 1957 March, will be at Wednesday's 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Wednesday with "the same focus on remedies" she saw brought to the marches when she was a young woman in the civil rights movement. Both the 1963 and 1957 civil rights marches on Washington were instrumental in achieving important civil rights legislation at a time when race and racism were major issues in the country. The 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, held on May 17, the third anniversary of the 1954 school desegregation Supreme Court decision, was led by Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) on the Mall, with Bayard Rustin as the organizer. Attended mostly by Southern church congregations, its purpose was to get President Dwight D. Eisenhower to take action against school segregation and organized violence against Blacks in the South. Although only 25,000 mostly southern African Americans came to the May 1957 march, on September 9, 1957, President Eisenhower signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Its most lasting provisions were the establishment of the civil rights division of the Justice Department and of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to investigate voting problems and similar issues. Similarly, within a year of the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the first enforceable civil rights legislation since the Civil War. The Act established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with enforcement powers, barred discrimination in public accommodations, and authorized withdrawal of public funds from programs that practiced discrimination, among other provisions.
The March on Washington last Saturday "was a very successful encore and commemoration of the 1963 March," said Norton. "However, the 2013 March inspired a cacophony of important issues to take the stage, making the focus on a remedy more difficult than it was in 1957 and 1963. The 1963 March crystalized issues that had been dramatized by Southern protests for a decade. President John F. Kennedy and Congress could not easily avoid the demand for civil rights legislation, which was central to the 1963 March. In contrast, at Saturday's March, the issues had a common urgency but no central theme -- revision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a portion of which was invalidated by the Supreme Court this past June, immigration reform, income disparity, repeal of Stand Your Ground laws, and many more. The challenge we face today is to insist on remedies consistent with today's more complicated realities and our much larger and more diverse coalition."
The Congresswoman said that the 50th anniversary of the March has already achieved what was inconceivable in 1963, with remarks by three presidents scheduled for Wednesday. Although allied with the civil rights movement, the Kennedy administration tried to dissuade the leaders from marching for fear of violence. However, President John F. Kennedy met with the March leaders immediately following the event, endorsed its demands, and introduced legislation.
Norton concluded, "To see Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter address the March will not only bring three of the world's most powerful voices to the demands of the March, but will dramatize how the nation's seat of power in Washington has shifted since 1963. However, Wednesday's triumphant ending of the 2013 March with speeches by three presidents can only set the table for work ahead. The 2013 March must be a launching pad to demand and achieve tangible results -- most especially, statehood and voting rights for the 630,000 residents of the District of Columbia, which all other citizens of our country enjoy, the revision of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, and the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws."
One of the three presidential speakers Wednesday, President Jimmy Carter, in 1977 appointed Norton as the first female chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whose establishment was among the major demands of the 1963 March.