The March: What Are You Doing About It?

August 28, 2013

My dad’s button from the 1963 March on Washington.

Fifty years ago today my father stood in a crowd of about a couple hundred thousand people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in The March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom. Somewhere nearby, unknown to my father, was my mother and my grandfather. It would be at least two more years until my parents would meet in graduate school at the University of Chicago.

As they each recounted to me years later, The March was a powerful experience. But for Lou Fourcher, my father, it became part of his core. Born to a middle-class, small town New England family that only three generations before had marched in the Confederate Army, the Civil Rights Movement infused my father with an enduring desire for justice.

The year before The March, in 1962, Lou spent a semester with two other white students at the historically Black Morehouse College in Atlanta. While there he joined segregated drugstore sit-ins, visited Martin Luther King, Sr.’s home just off campus and mostly hung out with his fellow students–a radical act for the day, considering The South’s general opposition to integration.

Later, as a graduate student, my father took the March’s mission to heart as he helped launch the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Valley Project in 1971, Chicago’s first community health center, organized in one of Chicago’s poorest (and African-American) slums, Tri-Taylor. A decade later during the 80’s and early 90’s he led and helped grow the Erie Family Health Center in Humboldt Park, where he helped create one of Chicago’s first AIDS treatment programs and an organization that in others’ hands, would become one of Chicago’s most important health care providers to the poor.

A deeply modest man, if you congratulated Lou on his experiences and accomplishments, he invariably said, “It wasn’t a big deal,” and then cite others he really admired, like Ruth Rothstein or John Lewis. For my dad, working to improve the lives of others was the kind of thing any good person would do.

Now stricken with late-stage Alzheimer’s, my father is no longer able to talk about The March and what he thinks it means fifty years later. But his accomplishments and his sense of doing right weighs on me–especially now with the 50th Anniversary of The March on Washington.

There is still great inequity in our country. My hometown, Chicago, is deeply segregated. The poor minority neighborhoods of the 1960’s are still the poorest neighborhoods today. They may no longer have trash in the streets and cinder playlots, but there’s still plenty of shootings and rampant unemployment.

A few weeks ago, as a friend and I were recounting the injustices in our world, he stopped me short to ask, “What are you doing about it?”

Not much right now, I admitted.

It isn’t as if I haven’t done anything. I spent almost 15 years working for and to elect progressive candidates, and then I spent three years trying to build community news websites. There were a lot of sacrifices in those years, financial and otherwise, and yet it still doesn’t feel like enough because I don’t feel like much really changed while I was doing those things.

With years of elections and policy work for progressive campaigns and causes behind me, today I’m much more interested in supporting ideas than I am in individuals. Politicians come and go with their political fortunes, but ideas are more pervasive. Barack Obama has tried to leverage some of the Civil Rights movement ideology–particularly with his “Hope” theme–but like most politicians, many Americans have been ultimately disappointed by Obama. Perhaps enough to permanently doubt the idea that any one politician can change things for the better.

But in fairness to Obama, the injustices of 1963 confronted by Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and thousands of others committed to racial and social change, were easier to recognize, thanks to Eugene “Bull” Connor siccing dogs on children and the blatant, desperate situation of inner city slums and rural American poverty. Women were actively barred from rising in the workplace and many minorities were kept from the polls. 1960’s America was not as interconnected as present day, so for many Americans, merely learning that people could be kept from voting or living in such poverty was jarring, causing the majority to demand action.

Today’s injustices are just as keen, but harder to pinpoint. African-American turnout in 2008 probably won North Carolina for Obama, but rather than keep Blacks from voting, Republicans are simply abolishing early voting, which is popular with African-Americans in North Carolina, making a big Democratic state-wide win less likely. If you asked most Americans what they thought of abolishing early voting, they’d wonder why state officials would do something so silly, but would hardly go so far as to call it an injustice–despite the fact that the change was enacted to actively ensure certain people had a harder time getting to the polls.

And despite the amount of grinding urban and rural poverty that continues to exist, the fact is there are many more welfare and assistance programs to help lift people out of poverty than there were fifty years ago. Today’s poverty is more systemic, more engrained in sub-cultures than ever before, such that since 1963, like ethnic Whites decades before them, African-Americans that could afford to, fled the city to “Black suburbs” like Prince George’s County in Maryland and Matteson outside of Chicago. After fifty years of trying, it is hard to say with assurance what it will really take to raise up America’s poorest.

Fifty years later America still needs Freedom and Jobs. But unlike then, it seems so much less clear what we’re supposed to do about it.

It isn’t clear to me now what we’re supposed to do to change the world. But I promise my dad I’ll keep thinking about it. And then do something about it when I have a good idea.