We are only days away from celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, which was a watershed in the fight for equality, opportunity and affirmative action. Let us not forget that it was a March on Washington for jobs and freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders of the civil rights movement understood that without jobs, there was no freedom. They also understood that while competition might be good for business, without cooperation there is no business.
In 50 years, we have made a lot of progress. Were no longer surprised to find minorities in positions of responsibility or in the public eye. We dont have to worry about the first African-American this or the first Hispanic that. A lot of glass ceilings have been broken: women Supreme Court justices — more diverse than the men; black head coaches in the NFL; an African-American president. Next up, maybe a woman president.
Looking over the political and social landscape since the March on Washington for jobs and freedom, back in August 1963, its hard to argue with Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote, Our country has changed.Hes right, to an extent. America has changed. In many ways, its changed for the better.
And yet ...
The conclusion of Martin Luther King Jr.s I Have a Dream speech remains as poignant and as inspiring and as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Go listen to it again. He talked of mountains, saying, With this faith — the faith that America will live up to its promise — we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. He quoted the song My Country Tis of Thee, which concludes, from every mountainside, let freedom ring, and then named mountain after mountain — let freedom ring.
Over the years, Ive thought about that passage. Ive studied the nuances of that speech, felt its words echo in my heart. But I wondered: Why name so many mountains in so many states?
And as I thought about what Chief Justice Roberts said, and as I tried to find the words to express what I know to be true, that America has not changed as much as it needs, I came back, as I often do, to Dr. Kings dream. And I realized why the chief justice was projecting his own sense of privilege rather than reflecting the reality of America today. You see, freedom can only ring from the mountainside if someone climbs that mountain and rings the bell. Someone has to have that job.
But climbing a mountain isnt steady progress up and always forward. There are detours, twists and backward steps, retracing and loose footing. What I see, and what all of us who dedicate every day to the proposition that we must work together toward equality in the workplace, must see, is that we are still climbing the mountain to ring the bell of freedom — that freedom does not yet ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia or from any of the mountains Dr. King named. Because freedom can ring only when the self-evident truth that all people are created equal is expressed in that most fundamental proving ground — the workplace. We have won many battles. But if we thought that a battle once fought and won is won forever — well, we need only look at recent events.
We have had too many attempts to restrict freedom — freedom that begins with creating more access to the voting booth, not less; freedom that requires more reasoned discussion, not more talking points. We have had too much indifference to jobs; weve had lip service. But what we need is a commitment to education, to health care (you cant work if youre sick), and to the industries of the future. Jobs require cooperation, compromise, a strong infrastructure, public investment and private enterprise.
It is easy to teeter on the ledge of the mountain of despair when we consider the implications of decisions such as the Supreme Courts in the affirmative action case Fisher v. Texas. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said in dissent, only an ostrich could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious.
So how do we avoid being an ostrich?
I think we begin by not just remembering, but embracing what Dr. King told Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek, when he told her the importance of her character: We will be seen as we should be seen every day — as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance, but who can also go into space. And further, while we may be black or female or Jewish or Hispanic or male, those are not our roles. Our role is to work together in mutual respect, each with his or her talents, through increased acts of goodness and kindness, toward a more perfect union.
(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.)