Admittedly, I am too young to remember the march, or even to have been there. From what I read and hear from older colleagues and friends, it was a sight unmatched. Some 250,000people gathered in Washington, faced the Lincoln Memorial, listened to the voices of riveting speakers (most memorably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and delivered a message to the government that it was time to usher in a new American reality. This country’s citizens would lift up the poor and the disadvantaged, who had been cast aside by those who were in power.
This was a large and unprecedented gathering. And while the words of Dr. King are those that have become etched in the American psyche, there were countless other leaders and speakers — of all religions and races — who took part.
Today, we speak of the march. But the significance of the March on Washington was not what it achieved that day, but rather the laws that were enacted (and enforced) after the march was over. These are laws pertaining to civil rights, voting rights and human rights.
I was fortunate to grow up in an era after these laws had already been passed. A child of the ’70s, I never knew separate but equal. I learned about slavery as a tragedy of America’s past — but the distant past. Until I was older and had greater perspective on the chronology of our history, I pictured the civil rights movement, John F. Kennedy and Dr. King as centuries before my time — and not fewer than two decades.
And I think that is significant — for what it says to me is that the March on Washington achieved much more than a set of laws; it achieved a change in the hearts and minds of the American people.
The “turbulent ‘60s” were turbulent, but they were built on Dr. King’s foundation of peace, love and brotherhood of mankind. And when the riots ended and the smoke cleared, the people were changed.
One cannot enact laws that force people to respect and love one another; laws serve to protect the rights and safety of individuals. Only a person can correct his moral failings.
We are now in the month of Elul. It is a time of reflection, a period during which God calls on us to become more self-aware and to draw closer.
Love and kindness have been a part of Judaism from the very beginning: “… You are not to hate your brother in your heart. … You are not to retain anger against the sons of your kinspeople, but be loving to your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17-18).
In today’s America, we are fortunate to have the freedom to observe our religion openly and freely. We — like people of all races and creeds — enjoy equal rights. (This is something that still does not exist in many parts of the world.)
But while we relish in our freedoms, it is incumbent upon us not to forget what others went through so we could have these privileges — those others are not just Jews, but people such as Dr. King and events such as the March on Washington — and to remember there is still more work to be done.
Not just in Congress — but in our own hearts.