March on Washington from Lincoln Memorial.

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, Americans across the nation are reflecting on the progress of civil rights in the past half century. Below, three Hoover fellows offer their perspectives on the successes and the failures of the movement.

Thomas Sowell, the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at Hoover, noted, in an essay for Creators.com entitled “A Poignant Anniversary,” that “there has been much documented racial progress since 1963[, b]ut there has also been much retrogression.” In particular, he focused on changes in the conceptualization of the civil rights movement’s terms, such as racist or justice, writing “the nation has just been through a sensationalized murder trial in Florida, on which many people took fierce positions before a speck of evidence was introduced, basing them on nothing more than judging those involved by the color of their skin. We have a long way to go to catch up to what Martin Luther King said fifty years ago. And we are moving in the opposite direction.”

Richard Epstein, the Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior fellow at Hoover, emphasized in his essay “The Dream Derailed” for Hoover’s Defining Ideas that the two goals of the march – freedom and jobs – are irreconcilable, writing, “A campaign for both jobs and freedom will ultimately have to choose between them.” Progress after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act has been difficult because the work to be done is more difficult, arguing that “[i]t takes little ingenuity to sell train tickets to all customers and to offer them transport on fair and nondiscriminatory terms. . . . Yet the same strategy cannot work for employment. No one thinks that jobs, like seats on trains, should be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis at uniform wages. Labor markets, on both the supply and demand sides, are defined by a huge heterogeneity.” Therefore, according to Epstein, “[t]he modern champions of the civil rights movement make these overwrought comparisons to earlier days because they know that the regalvanized movement needs a fat target at which to shoot. The messy issues around labor, housing, and education don’t provide that target, but raise hard technical issues on which these leaders have nothing useful to contribute. So the current economic frustrations morph into a widespread uneasiness.”

Kiron Skinner, the W. Glenn Campbell Research Fellow at Hoover, took a philosophical approach for a commemorative symposium in the National Review. According to Skinner, “[l]imited government, property rights, equality under the law, natural law, individual rights, and democracy constitute the American Creed. . . . The great tragedy of contemporary America is that many African Americans have been misled by the notion that political institutions hold the key to safety and prosperity. While the federal government has instituted landmark legislation, executive orders, and judicial decrees that have made political institutions more responsive to American values, the promise offered by American political thought is often ignored. The Creed is much sturdier than the institutions through which it is expressed because it is the reason this nation came into existence.” This creed, argued Skinner, was at the heart of Dr. King’s speech in 1963 and what America should focus its energies on today.

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