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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
An unfulfilled dream
Blacks would not be served at lunch counters

T Rasul Murray, a poet from New York, went south to join the civil rights movement at the height of the bus boycotts and restaurant sit-ins in the early 1960s. He later worked on the team coordinating the march for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

I was a marshal at the March on Washington. On the day, there was an overriding sense of the massive nature of the event.

The march was the largest demonstration for freedom
All we did with hope and visions of transformation did little but exhaust the dream
Apprenticed, a poem inspired by the civil rights movement, by T Rasul Murray

So many people had come from so far away. I remember standing near a group of women, who were talking about their long bus journey from the south. They were excitedly telling the story about how they had stopped to use the rest-rooms, but because the queue for the ladies' was much longer than that of the men's they appropriated the men's room.

The breadth of the response to the call to Washington had sparked a tremendous sense of excitement and expectation. It was something that characterised the whole period. It later turned out to be a relatively unfounded sense of possibilities.

The sponsors of the march, known as the "Big 10", had brought together a phenomenally wide range of political attitude and strategic and tactical sensibilities.

It ranged from the churches, which had just begun to develop a limited sense that they might step away from the mainstream and engage in social action, to the SNCC, which was the most radical group.

But that sense of unity was not without its problems. On the morning of the march, there was a major issue over some of the content of the speech by SNCC chairman John Lewis.

He had drafted a speech that said: "We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie the way Sherman did... We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy."

The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, pressed for it to be toned down, and John, in deference to the coalition and with a lot of resistance from much of the SNCC membership, made the concessions in the interests of letting the event go on.

There is no question that since that time, structural changes have been made in the nature of this country. The existence of de jure [legal] segregation, for example, has been eliminated.

But our expectations at the time were larger than were ever realised. There is a continuing presence of poverty and racism in the country, and an inordinate incarceration of African-American males.

There is also the continuance of white supremacist attitudes, albeit many of them subtle, and despite the explosion of an African-American middle class, there is still a glass ceiling.

There is still a major resistance in this country to acknowledging any responsibility for the consequences of the enslavement of African peoples, and a major fight over affirmative action. These are indicative of the fact that the grand vision has not been fulfilled.




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