by Gabriel “Jack” Chin, Professor of Law, University of California, Davis School of Law. Professor Chin is the author of The Tyranny of the Minority: Jim Crow and the Counter-Majoritarian Difficulty in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review(with Randy Wagner). This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
As Americans reflect on events a half century in the past, I hope they will consider how it might guide our actions now. In particular, I hope people will think about what Americans still owe the African American community.
On August 28, 1963, the date of the March on Washington, the United States was pervasively discriminatory to a degree not fully appreciated today. African Americans bore a significant burden; in many or most parts of the country, they could not vote, attend public schools with whites, patronize the public accommodations or live in the housing that they wished, or hope to be hired for a broad range of public and private employment.
But African Americans were hardly the only oppressed group. Rape within marriage was no crime, and, although the Equal Pay Act was on the books and would take effect in 1964, employers could get around it simply by not hiring women for good jobs. The idea that gay men and lesbians might legally marry someone of the same sex was absurd; instead, investigation, prosecution, and imprisonment for sodomy were an important part of the business of law enforcement. Un-American immigrants (Africans, Jews and Catholics) were discouraged from immigrating through gerrymandered quotas; Asians were excluded by race. The list of those whose marginalization was justified and defended as obviously correct was long, and included people with mental or physical disabilities, Indians, religious minorities including Jews and Muslims, children born out of wedlock, and single mothers.
America was remade thanks to the bodies and blood of African Americans -- whites and others also participated in the civil rights movement, of course, but, primarily, it was African Americans. The civil rights struggle, exemplified by the March on Washington, had revolutionary consequences. Part of its effect was near-term changes like passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the unsung but perhaps most effective anti-racist legislation of the period, the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, which, by allowing for immigration on a non-racial basis, put America on the path to being a majority-minority nation.