Five Freedoms of First Amendment on Display at March 50 Years Ago
Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of his dream of racial equality — setting a historic milepost in the civil rights movement and in the nation's repudiation of the legal and historical stain of slavery.
The means, mechanism and methods of that Aug. 28, 1963, speech were the five freedoms of the First Amendment, given new definition and impact in that moment by an elegant and moving voice.
King's speech was rooted in a religious and philosophical belief of equality: "When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent Constitution and Declaration of Independence," King said, those Founders promised "that all men — yes, black men as well as white men —would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Clearly, the right of free speech ensured that an entrenched and powerful system of bigotry backed by laws of segregation and the historical customs of separation could not silence its critics. The rights of assembly and petition guaranteed that hundreds of thousands of marchers — an amazingly diverse group, in peaceful protest on that day and others — could not long be stopped, dispersed or silenced by government forces.
And the amendment also provided that a free press, while shamefully slow in many cases to rise to the challenge, ultimately would document the terrible legacies of slavery — poverty, unemployment and fractured families — as well as provide a living room view of the horrific death spasms of a segregated society. There was no avoiding the evening news views of police dogs and fire hoses loosed on fellow citizens, the magazine articles with indelible images of lynched men, and the newspaper stories and photos of bombed churches and bloody Freedom Riders.
It is no stretch to say that our First Amendment freedoms were never so much in evidence, never more important, and never so essential in providing and protecting the means by which a nation could confront its worst demons without government direction, interference or control.
Just 100 years after the Civil War tore at the fabric of the Union, those freedoms provided the path for the nation to take corrective action by a new set of laws to protect voting rights and against discrimination, and to set in motion new attitudes. Little more than one century after a nationwide controversy was sparked in 1901 when President Theodore Roosevelt invited noted African-American educator Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, the nation saw the election in 2008 of an African-American president, Barack Obama.
To be sure, the effort toward equal rights goes on, as does the role of our five core freedoms in that work.
At a number of programs surrounding the opening of "Make some Noise," a new exhibit at the Newseum noting the events of 1963, speakers and panelists reminded us that the march was not just for "freedom, but also about "jobs." Fifty years later, unemployment for minorities still exceeds by far the jobless rate for whites.
Speakers at the National Mall events commemorating the March expanded the call for equality to all minorities, to gays and to immigrants. Critics also assailed the U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year to end what many see as the essential voter rights protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
Today's legislative and social battles over the major issues of our day are both fueled by First Amendment freedoms and tempered by the "safety valve" aspect of those same rights. We have thus far avoided using those freedoms to avoid the great fear of the Founders, the "tyranny of the majority" that by force, heredity or royal claims had so paralyzed social progress in their time, and which even today plunge many nations into violent convulsions.
Panelists in a July 29 program at the Newseum theorized that King's closing words echo strongly down the halls of our history, because he spoke both to issues and aspiration in great American experience in self-governance, one rooted in five basic freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. He put it this way:
"When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, Free at last, Great God almighty, We are free at last."