After the March — the Immediate Task

We will not stop marching until we are all free.” —Maya Wiley

By Dr. Erica Southerland and Cedric Lawson

Sixty years ago today, just two days after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Arnold Aronson — one of the founders of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and its executive secretary at the time — wrote to member organizations of our coalition to outline what came next.

“The March on Washington, as a great and moving experience, is secure in history. In size and spirit it exceeded the warmest expectations of those who issued the call,” Aronson wrote. “The world witnessed it and the world acclaimed the dignity and quiet purpose of the marchers. That much is certain. What is still in doubt is what effect the March will have on the fate and shape of the Civil Rights Bill.”

In his memo, titled “After the March — the Immediate Task,” Aronson deftly laid out the current state of civil rights legislation making its way through Congress. He knew that while advocates in Washington, D.C. — working together through The Leadership Conference coalition — continued their advocacy efforts in support of a robust civil rights bill, people throughout the nation would need to continue making their voices heard.

“It is our task to convince the White House, Congress and the Department of Justice that the March on Washington will go on throughout the country until effective legislation is passed,” Aronson said. “Once again, the need is plain: we need a flood of mail from all over the country….”

This year’s 60th anniversary of the march — not a commemoration, but a continuation of the original event in 1963 — powerfully demonstrated the ongoing need for what Aronson referred to as “a flood of mail from all over the country” in support of urgent civil rights priorities. Thousands of marchers gathered in Washington, D.C., last weekend to carry on the charge as articulated by bold and visionary leaders, to unite in solidarity across communities, and to renew the hope that has always been required of civil rights advocates in our nation.

As Maya Wiley, our president and CEO, said during her remarks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “We march on because we are here to say to America: We are the majority. We are marching to say we are this country. And we will not stop marching until we are all free.”

The notion that there remains unfinished business 60 years after the March on Washington — that we are marching on together to achieve some of the original march’s demands and “until we are all free,” as Maya said — is an undeniable truth that continues to propel our storied civil rights coalition forward. Just like our founders did 60 years ago, we helped to organize this year’s march — recruiting staff, member organizations, and people from across the nation who believe deeply that our civil and human rights, and indeed our democracy, are always worth fighting for.

Those marchers included people who had never attended a demonstration before but who now believe in and understand the powerful importance of collective action. Those marchers also included foot soldiers of the 1963 march who showed up once again this year, including our former president and CEO Wade Henderson — a D.C. native who rode his bike to the March on Washington at the age of 15. As Wade once recalled, “When the March on Washington was announced, I had an interest in going. My parents asked me not to — I simply said it was time.”

Sixty years later, it is still time because our nation’s public schools remain highly segregated and affirmative action in higher education has been rolled back. It is still time because LGBTQ people are facing an onslaught of attempts to curtail their fundamental right to exist free of harassment, discrimination, and violence. It is still time because forces in America continue to wage relentless attacks on our ballots, our bodies, and our books.

And it is still time because, as we marched in our nation’s capital, a heinous act of racist hate violence stole three Black lives in Jacksonville, Florida. It is heartbreaking. It is devastating. It is a present tragedy and a representation of the disheartening truth and reality of far too many. It also forcefully reminds us that our work is not over. We march on to confront and dismantle dangerous and racist ideologies. We march on to end the violence and division that threatens the fabric of our society. And we march on because we know that we are stronger together and because the demand for justice and for a country that recognizes our humanity remains urgent.

Throughout our nation’s history, we have evoked change and preserved our democracy. Today, we advocate with hope and fight for action. We know that despair is not an option and that we all have the power to make a change in America. Aronson knew this 60 years ago when he wrote his “After the March” memo to our coalition. As he said in closing: “The people who came to Washington stood up before the Lincoln Memorial and pledged, each one, that ‘I will work to make sure that my voice and those of my brothers ring clear and determined from every corner of our land.’ Now they must sit down and write.”

That is again our task today: To speak out, to show up for our democracy, and to never stop fighting for the America we all deserve.

Dr. Erica Southerland is managing director of communications and Cedric Lawson is field director at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.