On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 Americans traveled to the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Organized by a united coalition of civil rights groups, the March on Washington called for civil and economic rights for African-Americans.
Today, 50 years later, the nation celebrated the legacy of the March and of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March remains one of the most iconic moments in American history.
Tyrone Russell, director of the office of multicultural affairs at Lehigh, was among the thousands in attendance at the anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C. Two Lehigh students made the trip as well.
“We wanted students to experience history,” said Russell. “It was a great opportunity to expose students to activism and the history of activism in this country.”“Shaking hands with history”
Russell said he hoped that the energy surrounding the event would inspire young people to engage in social movements devoted to the issues that matter most to them.
According to one Lehigh student, the event did precisely that.
“I knew the importance of this day and of Dr. King, but I didn’t really think I would feel the way I did today as I was marching alongside so many passionate people,” said Tiara Jones, ‘14, a business management major. “We were chanting and singing hymns; it was a really powerful experience for me.”
James Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh and associate professor of English, attended a commemorative celebration of King’s speech on Saturday, Aug. 24. An MSNBC contributor, Peterson also appeared on a live MSNBC segment titled “Advancing the Dream” from the nation’s capital, and discussed the importance of the event.
“What is amazing here is that you can walk out here and encounter history,” said Peterson. “You can shake hands with history just being here.
“I hope that this is galvanizing and energizing for people in the way it has been for me and my family.”
Continued progress on diversity issues
King’s 1963 speech at the March on Washington called for a paradigm shift in America. His vision of a nation free of racism and economic discrimination led Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Henry Odi ‘98G, the vice provost for academic diversity at Lehigh, said much has changed in the last few decades at the university.
“Twenty-five years ago, when we last commemorated this anniversary, Lehigh was a different place, and in the years since, there has been progress,” said Odi, who is now in his 27th year at Lehigh. “There was no Africana studies program, no Women’s studies program. My position, as vice provost for academic diversity, did not exist.”
“Today, our Africana studies program is celebrating its 20th anniversary, our office of multicultural affairs is doing great work, and our student body itself is more diverse than ever before.”
Odi reflected on the progress Lehigh has made, and said he hopes that in the next 25 years, the university will continue to take steps toward racial, gender and economic equality.
“My hope is that in the next 25 years, our university makes continued progress toward an even more diverse student body, faculty and staff,” said Odi. “I want to see the graduation rates for our students of color equal the rates for our majority students, and I want to see us continue to support multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion efforts.”