People march for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias. Aug. 28, 1963 in Washington D.C. Photo: Warren K. Leffler, courtesy of Library of Congress

A young black man orders a sundae at a southern lunch counter and, instead, winds up at a (black only) hospital with multiple cuts and bruises to his head, a smashed cheekbone and broken ribs. A young girl is knocked off her feet as fire hoses, strong enough to tear bark off a tree, are aimed at her and her mother. Four little girls prepare for Sunday morning services when a bomb rips through their church and ends their short lives. White, black and brown people link arms and sing “We Shall Overcome” after Dr. King’s thunderous voice declares again and again,

“I have a dream!”

For some of our students these images are long-ago history. For many of us, they are lived history. But whether we are younger or older, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and the 1963 March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom can be an opportunity to revitalize our dedication to creating a country that lives its ideal of “opportunity for all”.

Too often the Civil Rights movement is taught as a set of events frozen in time. We even hear that phrase “post-racialized” America as if the struggles of the Civil Rights era are done and complete. We do our students a disservice when we don’t make them aware of how rights can be won and lost and, in fact, have been several times over throughout our country’s history. The idea of progress has dominated American culture for centuries as if “onward and upward” is a guarantee. To function in civic life, students must know that American ideals are not yet reality and, therefore, as citizens, they have a very important part to play.

What solutions might our students conceive for today’s civil rights issues such as: Housing, jobs, unequal medical care, a path to citizenship for immigrants, protecting the right to vote, monitoring and enforcing civil rights laws already on the books, the wealth and education gaps between whites and people of color plus a criminal justice system which has led to a “new Jim Crow” through mass incarceration targeting men of color.

In a misguided attempt to protect our students from harsh truths or to wish the challenging parts of our country away, we may be missing a chance to re-invigorate our students’ democratic spirit. The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement can be a wake-up call that “equality and justice for all” is a work in progress and an ideal about which we must be ever vigilant.

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About the events in Washington D.C.: