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Unfinished business

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the largest political rally ever held in the nation's capital up to that time. More than 200,000 people from across the country — black and white, young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican — assembled peacefully on the National Mall to demand that a century after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, America finally live up to its promise of equal opportunity and justice for all its citizens. The 50th anniversary of that historic gathering is an appropriate moment for us to pause to honor their passion and commitment to arouse the conscience of a nation.

Those who stood on the Mall that day were keenly aware of the fact that they were making history. A few months earlier, the nation had watched transfixed as images of civil rights demonstrators being brutally attacked with police dogs and fire hoses during peaceful protests in Birmingham, Ala., flickered across its television screens. Millions were also still mourning the murder of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, felled months earlier by an assassin's bullet in the driveway of his home.

For the multitudes assembled in Washington, their nonviolent protest expressed a deep moral outrage over a century of post-slavery racial injustice and violence that had made a mockery of America's democratic ideals.

Though many other speakers addressed the crowd that day, those feelings were crystallized in the famous "I Have a Dream" speech delivered by Martin Luther King from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the end of the that afternoon. His rhetoric was biblical in its cadences an uncompromising in its insistence that America redeem the "promissory note" of its founders guaranteeing liberty and justice for all.

King's words were soon to take on the evocative power of the great charter expressions of human liberty in the entire Western tradition, comparable in America perhaps only to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. King's soaring oratory not only electrified his audience on the Mall and inspired them to believe that change was truly possible but catapulted the American civil rights movement onto the international stage and made it a touchstone of the global struggle for human rights everywhere.

Yet, half a century later, although legal segregation in public accommodations, housing, education and employment officially are a thing of the past, much of King's dream remains unfulfilled. As many of those who gathered Saturday in Washington for a commemoration pointed out, glaring inequalities of opportunity, income and access persist as de facto realities.

Far too many black children are still trapped in low-performing public school systems that deny them a chance to fulfill their potential. Prospective black homeowners face discrimination from subprime mortgage lenders that charge them twice the interest rates offered white home buyers. And young African-American men are incarcerated way out of proportion to their percentage of the population, serving longer sentences for similar crimes committed by whites. Despite having elected the nation's first black president, America is still far from being a colorblind society.

The stark racial divide revealed by Americans' reaction to a Florida jury's verdict earlier this year acquitting a white man who fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Marvin sparked a vigorous debate over how much has really changed and how much unfinished business remains on the table. And the Supreme Court's ruling striking down part of the hard-won Voting Rights Act of 1965 has renewed the fears of many that the nation may once again be preparing to renege on the Constitution's promise of equal protection under the law.

The fight for racial and economic justice that brought the largest crowds in history to the Washington Mall 50 ago years is yet to be won. On this day, when a much smaller crowd is expected to gather in Washington to commemorate the moral transformation of our country that occurred there half a century ago, let us all rededicate ourselves to the task of making America truly a land whose citizens are not judged, in King's words, "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

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