This afternoon I’m headed to the Lincoln Memorial for the 50th Anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. Today’s event is both a commemoration and call to action. Thousands are gathering to remember the 1963 March and to outline the remaining civil rights agenda.
At times the 2013 civil rights agenda seems long. Just take a few data points for African American women economic security and you’ll see why. African American girls still only graduate at 65.3% nationwide and African American women face high rates of unemployment, at 10.5%. They are over-represented in many of the lowest paying jobs and when their typical wages are compared to the typical wages of white, non-Hispanic men they make only 64 cents on the dollar. What’s more, the voting and employment discrimination cases from the last week of the Supreme Court’s term highlighted the vulnerability of existing civil rights protections and left this Congress with a whole lot to fix.
In other words, there is a lot to do – the 2013 civil rights agenda is long for a reason. But the events over the last week also remind me that progress really is possible. The list of demands from the 1963 March illustrates this point – topping the list was “comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation . . . to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations; decent housing; adequate and integrated education; and the right to vote.” The following summer Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The year after came the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These fundamental protections, together with critical laws like Title IX, laid the foundation for advancements in education, employment, housing, voting. We can do it again, but it will not happen on its own. The lesson I’m taking from the 1963 March is that progress will take fierce advocacy from a wide range of a communities and fearless leadership.
Congress can restore the voting rights undermined by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Congress can address the Supreme Court decisions in Vance and Nasser that have made it harder for workers to challenge harassment and retaliation in the workplace. Congress can take the long overdue, critical measures to help close the wage gap for African American women – and for all women. Congress can take the steps necessary to address the entrenched unemployment rates in the African American community. Congress can ensure that there are explicit federal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
It can happen. Congress is already at work at some of this. And advocates are coming together in a variety of ways–the Equal Pay Today! Campaign, a coalition representing hundreds of thousands of supporters, is calling on states to take steps to achieve equal pay for women. Governors around the country are responding. The Paycheck Fairness Campaign is working to advance federal policies that will close the wage gap.
The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is also a wonderful reminder of the progress that is possible when we set ambitious targets and work collectively to achieve them. 50 years later I am reminded of all that is possible and more importantly, am ready to work.