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Dispatches: Fifty Years After the March on Washington, New Voices–and New Challenges

When US President Barack Obama speaks tomorrow on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he will be surveying a landscape very different from that of 1963.

As I, and others, noted to the thousands of people gathered for Saturday’s anniversary rally at the Lincoln Memorial, the US has made real progress on equal rights. Laws now forbid intentional racial discrimination. In addition to African-Americans, Latinos and members of the LGBT community among other groups are playing prominent roles in the human rights struggle. Many spoke eloquently on Saturday.

The same is true for women: the 1963 event paid tribute to women such as Rosa Parks and Myrlie Evers, widow of murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Musicians like Mahalia Jackson and organizers like Eleanor Holmes Norton also played important roles. But only one woman, Daisy Bates, spoke. It is exciting that many women – including Myrlie Evers-Williams, now 80 years old – gave powerful speeches last Saturday.

Yet as civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from 1963, said on Saturday of the struggles of 50 years ago: “Those days, for the most part, are gone; but we have another fight.”

That fight includes not only defending hard-earned gains in areas like voting rights, now under assault, but also causes back on the front page, such as immigration and sentencing reform. Discrimination in criminal justice persists, as shown by the recent court ruling that the New York Police Department's “stop-and-frisk” policy violates constitutional rights, and by unwarranted racial disparities in the rates at which drug offenders are arrested and the length of sentences they receive. The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida calls for close examination of state laws that may have racially discriminatory effects.

Among other challenges ahead: securing paid leave and work-family support; protecting child farmworkers; ending indiscriminate surveillance; prohibiting indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo or anywhere else; avoiding the troublingly common conflation of Islam with violence; providing accountability for torture; and much more.

Obama may not get to all these issues in his Wednesday speech, but he should do so in his policies.

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