President Obama's speech was both pragmatic and inspirational as he declared that America's historic march toward racial equality "requires constant vigilance" and as he tied continued racial progress to the need for expanding economic prosperity to all Americans. His effort to update Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of hope for a new century received enthusiastic approval from the estimated 100,000 who gathered at the National Mall to mark the 50th anniversary of the original March on Washington.
But the commemoration Wednesday was lacking in at least one respect. The news coverage, the commentary and the speeches themselves didn't put the events of Aug. 28, 1963, into their full perspective as a rare moment of hope amid one of the most horrendous and depressing years in American history.
The 1963 March and King's "I Have A Dream" speech are remembered today for their optimism. But other events in 1963 contradicted this positive sentiment, and served as a harbinger of the violence and turbulence that lay ahead. Overall, 1963 showed how difficult social progress can be, and how profound some of America's problems were – and remain.
The South was already erupting with hostility when the March on Washington occurred. Attack dogs and fire hoses were used on peaceful civil-rights demonstrators. Sit-ins against segregation were increasing, and arrests were escalating. Civil-rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Miss. Racial hatred was rampant. And things got worse.
On Sept. 15, less than three weeks after the March, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed, killing four African-American schoolgirls attending Sunday school. It was one of the worst hate crimes in American history. Conflict continued throughout the South between blacks and whites, and many African-Americans started to lose patience with King's philosophy of nonviolence.
On Nov. 22, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, an utter calamity for the country. There was no link to racial issues, but the perception among many Americans was that the country was spinning out of control.
On Nov. 24, Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's alleged assassin, was shot and killed in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters by local nightclub owner Jack Ruby in a murder seen on live television.
Abroad, the situation was deteriorating in Vietnam, presaging years of carnage there, both for the United States and the Vietnamese people, as the war deeply divided America across all demographic lines. On June 11, in Saigon, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death in public to protest the oppression of Buddhists by the American-backed regime in South Vietnam. His self immolation shocked millions in the United States and around the world.
On Nov. 2, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in a political coup. General Duong Van Minh took over on November 6.
On Nov. 24, new U.S. President Lyndon Johnson pledged that the United States would continue to support South Vietnam in its war with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong rebels – a conflict that would last another decade.
In the end, perhaps the best way to assess 1963 is to view it as a time when Americans came to realize that big changes were spreading through the country and around the globe, and they needed to adjust to them, even if the process would be arduous, wrenching and dangerous.
One or two steps forward were followed by one or two steps backward, both at home and abroad.
This resonates with the situation today, when the first African-American president and many civil-rights leaders are pleased with the overall movement away from overt discrimination against blacks. But there is still vast unemployment in the African-American community, especially among young men; battles have resumed over voting rights; and racial profiling is a continuing flash point. Abroad, Syria has descended into civil war and the president is considering the use of military force to punish the governing regime for allegedly using chemical weapons.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says that 1963 "was a time when Americans were very divided," but eventually "they faced up to the challenges. ... And the teachable moment is that we have to do that again in this country today, and not just on race and civil rights."
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.