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Wednesday April 23rd 2014

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Reconsidering King’s Words: Why His 50 Year Old Speech is Still Relevant Today

By Michael Carter.

Fifty years have passed since Martin Luther King gave his historic speech at the nation’s capital in the first March On Washington, but racial issues persist.

King delivering his famous speech.

At U.Va., the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was celebrated with two events around grounds. U.Va.’s Office of the Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity hosted “Let Freedom Ring at U.Va.” and the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies held an event which asked students to reconsider King’s speech.

Deborah McDowell, Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute, wanted to bring new life to a speech that is so frequently cited that its core message is often missed.

“We thought we would go beyond mere commemoration to ask ourselves what it would take to revitalize the goals of the 1963 March of Washington, especially in terms of jobs, equal opportunity, and social justice,” said McDowell.

Whenever race issues are debated among politicians and intellectuals, the conversation often turns to King’s speech and McDowell believes people misuse his words to support agendas that he would have opposed. It is for this reason that she believes it needs to be looked at in a new light.

While some progress toward racial equality has been achieved over the last half century, the conversation about race continues, as many problems persist. At U.Va., the painting of a derogatory slur on the side of Beta Bridge last spring semester was one recent prolific example of racism.

Another issue that has recently received criticism is the decision to scale back Access U.Va., a program intended to provide financial assistance to low-income students.  This has particular relevance in regards to the March on Washington’s focus on “jobs and freedom.”

McDowell said, “We are very much in a critical moment,” regarding this new decision about the financial aid program, which “made U.Va. education available to the most under-served members [of society].”

Wage disparities between white and black communities was addressed in the original March on Washington and is still at the top of the event’s agenda. Unemployment is twice as high among black Americans as compared with white Americans. Limiting access to higher education for low-income students, by making it more difficult for them to better their situation, could harm efforts to solve the employment gap.

McDowell points out that, as the nation makes progress toward equality, new issues often arise.

“Progress is not a linear phenomenon,” said McDowell. “For every step forward we take, we seem to take several steps back.”

Though this is frustrating, McDowell says that each person has a role they can fill. Whether as an educator, politician, or any other job, by keeping King’s message in mind and actively working to pursue his goals, individuals can help move the nation closer to equality, step by step.