In April of this year, I was asked by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government to share my thoughts on the upcoming 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s seminal “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963.
Just as Americans of all backgrounds will share our nation’s destiny, I observed, we must struggle together to assure that America lives up to her highest ideals.
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Dr. King spoke 50 years ago, I continued, was a shared assertion of America’s ideals.
His prophetic challenge was advanced on behalf of a broad, multi-racial coalition of working people, union members, faith leaders and intellectuals who were demanding a fundamental change in the status quo of that era.
The broad expansion in universal opportunity that Dr. King addressed in his remarks was a challenge and a goal for everyone – not simply for those of us who are African Americans.
Now, as then, Americans in the tens of millions are struggling to survive economically, and tens of thousands of our countrymen and women are dying before their time.
Now, as then, all sorts of conniving methods are being utilized in well-financed attempts to deny the uplifting power of universal suffrage.
Now, as then, only a multi-racial, ecumenical coalition of conscience can halt our regression back into the sins of our past – and move America forward toward that “blessed community” of which Dr. King dreamed . . . .
“My friends,” I told the Harvard conference, “the civil rights movement of this 21st Century is still about lifting up Americans of Color, but our perspective has broadened. Now, in 2013, our movement is sharply focused upon lifting ALL Americans (and the generations yet to be born) out of poverty.”
This same thesis, I predict, will be at the heart of President Obama’s remarks when he, too, speaks from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the “Let Freedom Ring” rally on Aug. 28.
As the President’s advisor and friend, Valerie Jarrett, has observed, “There is inevitably an overlap in addressing racial equality at the same time you’re trying to create economic empowerment. If you look at poverty or unemployment, they disproportionately affect people of color. People who don’t have health insurance are disproportionately of color.”
“The President wants to create opportunity,” she confided,” and to make sure the level playing field is ready for everybody.”
I agree - and, I would submit, so would any fair-minded person.
Having devoted much of my adult life to working for greater racial equity, I have come to understand that we cannot achieve racial equality unless we also succeed in challenging – and overcoming - the widening economic inequality that threatens the very fabric of our society.
This is why, as in the past, our teachers are our most important civil rights workers.
They are the key in providing the empowering education that can end the most devastating segregation of all – the segregation from hope and opportunity that is the all-too-often result of poverty.
During our debates in Washington this year about reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have been in the forefront of our efforts to protect and expand funding for Title I and the other federal education initiatives.
From its inception, ESEA (and especially the legislation’s Title I) have addressed the educational challenges of economically disadvantaged children of all racial backgrounds who live in poor urban and rural areas.
In the Senate, we are making progress. The Senate’s approach to reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (S. 1094, sponsored by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and co-sponsored by Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski and others) largely supports the funding and strategy of ESEA and Title I.
Regrettably, the House version, H.R. 5, passed by a Republican party-line majority on August 14, does not. The House bill would freeze longer-term funding at “sequester” levels and dilute the historic federal focus upon the children of disadvantaged communities.
There is something drastically wrong with this picture. House Republicans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s dream by seeking to starve educational funding for poor children of all races.
Progressive Democrats in the House lost this first round in the House of Representatives, but the struggle for our nation’s children is not over. Our children simply cannot wait for the empowering education that can lift them out of poverty.
America should listen carefully to our teachers’ vision for public education. For our nation’s young people, we cannot ignore “the fierce urgency of now.
Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) represents Maryland's Seventh Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.