FOR A then-Overbrook teenager named Bob Ross, the bumpy ride of five decades of American civil-rights struggle truly began on the warm, sun-soaked Wednesday morning of Aug. 28, 1963, when the Army-bound 19-year-old boarded a bus to join his mom at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In the years that followed, Ross fashioned a successful career as a railroad engineer and a union leader - gaining jobs that had been completely off-limits for African-Americans in the years before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream of an America where people "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
But in Ross' current role as director of the NAACP chapter in the Washington suburb of Prince George's County, Md., he is remarkably busy these days, organizing rallies and events around the promises of that bright 1963 afternoon that have gone unfulfilled or even slid backward: Mass incarceration resulting from the government's "war on drugs" and soaring rates of mortgage foreclosures in black neighborhoods.
King "would say the March still continues - but it's shifted from civil rights to human rights," said the now 69-year-old Ross, referring to income inequality in America that has worsened over the last 50 years.
Indeed, today there are many "green shoots" of a new political activism budding, inspired at least subconsciously by civil-rights ideals of the 1960s and '70s that remain unrealized or have been pecked away at or even rolled back.
If 1963 is recalled as the year of Dr. King's Dream, then 2013 may someday be remembered as the year of the Dream Defenders - when mostly black teens are now occupying the Florida's governor's office over gun-safety issues, inspired by the shooting death of the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
It wasn't very long ago when the election of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president was hailed by some as the final mortgage payment on King's call before 250,000 marchers stretched out beyond the Lincoln Memorial for "to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."
But since then it's been clear that America's civil-rights debt isn't all paid up. Recent months have brought not just Florida's Dream Defenders vowing to repeal a pro-gun "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law in Martin's memory - but other protests like North Carolina's "Moral Mondays," where nearly 1,000 have been arrested protesting a restrictive voting law and other legislation, and unrest here in Philadelphia and in Chicago over the closing of schools and teacher layoffs in poverty-plagued neighborhoods.
The shock of recent events - especially June's U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had resulted partly from the momentum created the 1963 march - has given way to questions about rights and equality in a society that was prematurely dubbed "post-racial" after Obama's first election victory in 2008.
"Have things changed in the United States since 1963? . . . there's no denying that," said Thomas Sugrue, the University of Pennsylvania historian and acclaimed author on race and urban affairs. "Have we achieved all of what Martin Luther King and his fellow marchers wanted to achieve? . . . not a fat chance."
The glass is half-full: The historic election of Obama is the culmination of the rise of black political power resulting in scores of elected officials like Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, now heavy favorite to become New Jersey's first African-American U.S. senator, coinciding with the fall of once-imposing barriers to integration in schools and in the workplace.
The glass is half-empty: The rate of black unemployment has stayed appallingly high - roughly 2.5- or 2-to-1 more than white unemployment - throughout the last five decades. The average net worth of white families is still 20 times higher than that of blacks. There are more African-American men behind bars today than were chained in slavery in 1850 and predominantly black cities from Camden to Detroit struggle with bankruptcy, school crises, high homicide rates and shocking post-industrial blight. Meanwhile, a federal judge this month called out cops in New York City for targeting young blacks and Latinos with a stop-and-frisk policy.
On Aug. 28, 1963, a sign held aloft by one marcher captures the vast hope and ambition of that day: "Civil Rights Plus Full Employment Equals Freedom." Civil-rights victories did quickly follow, with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended legalized segregation and the Voting Rights Act one year later.
Yet, in the 2010s, activists are looking with alarm at measures like the court-contested Pennsylvania voter-ID law that would once again make it harder for blacks - as well as Latinos, the elderly and college students - to exercise their right to cast a ballot. Fourteen other states enacted similar laws in the run-up to the 2012 campaign that led to Obama's re-election. Now, sparked by the new Supreme Court ruling, Southern states from Texas to North Carolina are racing to reduce voting hours or close polling sites at historically black colleges.
"Things changed dramatically in the year 2000" with the contested presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, said Barbara Arnwine, longtime executive director of the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "That was the first year that we saw this onslaught of voter suppression."
Why? Arnwine and other experts believe that the mostly white Republican legislators who've been promoting the new voting laws came to see minority voting as less a matter of civic principle and more a matter of political survival, as growing and heavily Democratic black and Latino voter registration began to swing elections, culminating in Obama's win.
"It does surprise me," Arnwine said of the restrictive measures. "Elsewhere throughout the world, the movement is really to seek greater democracy, and greater voter participation."
Meanwhile, the other main goal of the 1963 march - full employment - has proved elusive, especially as millions of manufacturing jobs fled the cities where black Americans are largely concentrated.
"One of the significant offsets is that African-Americans tended to be concentrated in the places that have had the most precarious economies over the last half-century," said Sugrue, whose 1996 book on Detroit, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, won the Bancroft Prize for History.
He noted that prior to 1963, blacks were largely shut out of the best-paying union jobs, but that once minorities gained better access to factory jobs, those positions up and left - first for the suburbs, eventually for Mexico and then overseas.
The current black-unemployment rate is 12.6 percent, or nearly double the white jobless rate of 6.6 percent. Indeed, there's also mounting evidence that African-Americans took a disproportionate hit since the economic crash of 2008, since so much wealth had been tied up in homes, while whites have more money in stocks which rebounded more quickly.
Despite these 21st-century setbacks, both experts and surviving participants of the 1963 march wonder if the uniqueness of that time - when labor unions like the United Auto Workers, white ministers and others joined together with black activists to create a truly mass movement - could easily be repeated.
Nolan Atkinson Jr., who grew up in the middle-class neighborhood of South Bryn Mawr in Montgomery County and traveled from Boston University to the 1963 march as a leader of the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, said that seeing that large and integrated gathering splayed across the National Mall was a life-altering experience for him.
"People quickly understood that this was something mainstream, this march," said Atkinson, who is now a partner in the Philadelphia law firm Duane Morris and was recently named the firm's first chief diversity officer. That was a major step forward for civil rights activists who'd been considered on the fringes in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The current heirs to the movement are hoping to regain the middle ground - and the nation's attention - once again.
"We went to sleep for a few minutes - we were not paying attention to all these laws that were passed," conceded Ross, the Philadelphian-turned-Maryland-NAACP leader. At the end of a hot summer 50 years later, he's looking for lightning to strike a second time.
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