March on Washington Panel Discussion Draws Standing-Room-Only Crowd
A panel of scholars reflected on the strides made — and the problems that have persisted — in the 50 years since thousands of African Americans marched to Washington, D.C., and heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
More than 100 Providence College students, faculty, and staff attended “How Far Toward Justice? The Arc of History 50 Years after the March on Washington,” which was held in the Slavin Center and sponsored by the Office of Institutional Diversity.
Rafael A. Zapata, associate vice president and chief diversity officer, introduced the panelists — Dr. David Canton, associate professor of history at Connecticut College, Dr. Manu Vimalassery, visiting assistant professor in American studies at Williams College, as well as PC’s Dr. Kara Cebulko, assistant professor of sociology and of global studies, and Dr. Julia Jordan-Zachery, associate professor of political science and director of the Black Studies Program.
In his opening remarks, College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80 quoted a passage from the end of King’s speech, in which the activist described using faith “to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
“It is my hope and prayer that Providence College can be a place where this dream is realized, this dream of brotherhood,” Father Shanley said.
Canton said marches represent democracy as well as federalism. The march was one of several throughout American history in which participants — some white, some black — called on the federal government to step in and respond when states could or would not, he said.
“Somehow there’s this myth that African Americans are the only ones that demand stuff from the government,” that civil rights are only for black people, he said.
“We have to look at it more nuanced. It is about economic inequality,” he said. “Poverty is not this black thing. It’s an American thing.” The most recent recession has been devastating to minority communities, but “the new poor is a suburban poor.”
Vimalassery discussed the current state of jobs and freedom. Since the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics began calculating the unemployment rate in the 1970s, the black rate has been twice the white rate, he said. In addition, one in 12 African-American men of working age is in prison right now. But Vimalassery lauded activist movements such as fast-food workers conducting rolling strikes for higher wages.
Absence of women
Jordan-Zachery spoke about the role of women in the civil rights movement, though none was featured prominently at the march.
“Women were the backbone of the civil rights movement that led to the March on Washington,” she said. “However, there was a marked absence of women. That continues 50 years later in our understanding of freedom and jobs, etc.”
Cebulko described how United States’ immigration changed after the march. “As we designed immigration policy — who we decided to let in, and who we gave access to citizenship — race always informed those policies and continues to do it today,” she said.
After 1965, the face of immigration changed as the new wave of immigrants came not from Europe, but from Asia and Latin America. Before the Immigration Act of 1965, policies were designed to favor northern and western Europeans. The 1965 act removed the restrictive quotas on Eastern and Southern immigration as well as laws that effectively excluded Asian immigration.
Kari Hardgrove ’12, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in the Rhode Island Campus Compact office housed in the Feinstein Academic Center, asked the panel about the role of higher-education institutions in the fight against racism.
“The assumption is, once you’re educated, that will eliminate sexism, racism,” Canton said. But problems still persist. “Diversity requirements are important for the knowledge base. If not, these ideas continue to percolate.”
“We still live in a society that’s deeply segregated by race and class,” Zapata said, which makes it hard to interact with different people.
But higher education presents a chance to have conversations, to make friends, and to learn from people from different classes and races in substantive ways. “College is a wonderful opportunity for that to happen,” Zapata said.
— Liz F. Kay
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