Gearing up for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, various civil rights groups hosted a community forum in front of the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building on Wednesday, Aug. 21. Speakers included Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, NAACP board member Dr. Hazel Dukes and National Urban League CEO Marc Morial.
While the event that evening paid homage to the pinnacle of an historical movement, the topics up for discussion were contemporary. Schneiderman opened his speech by bringing to the surface the disillusionment many people experienced following the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.
“In the last few months, in the context of the Trayvon Martin case, we have heard a lot of talk about the need to respect the American system of justice,” he began. “I am proud to be an American lawyer. I am proud to be your attorney general. But what a lot of folks don’t seem to understand is that after the Trayvon Martin verdict, millions of Americans felt that the American justice system was not respecting them.”
The attorney general transitioned to the economic burdens placed on civilians at the hands of the government, who bailed out big banks at the genesis of the recession in 2008. He encouraged listeners to continue taking to the streets to rally against the multiple economic injustices they face. “But we also need you on the outside, protesting against government policies that tell us that every small business you see here in Harlem is allowed to fail,” he said. “Too big to fail and too big to jail is not just anti-American. It is anti-capitalist and disrespectful to all of us who are allowed to fail.”
Rep. Charlie Rangel stressed the need to keep in mind the historical figures from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the current fight for voting rights, reminding the audience not to be swayed by political plays of the race card.
“When people say that you got a Black president, and therefore racism is over, why don’t we tell it to those people in the South who are still stopping us from voting, cutting off the voting rights, keeping people from the polls?” he asked.
In an interview following the community forum, Kristen Clark, chief of the civil rights bureau for the attorney general’s office, reflected on the March on Washington both as a native New Yorker and a political figure.
“It’s an important moment to take a step back and reflect on the progress that we’ve made as a state and a nation,” said Clarke, who grew up in the high-crime environment of East Brooklyn. “It’s also a time to really focus on the significant challenges that remain. We continue to wrestle with ongoing racial discrimination in this country, and there have been so many stark and bitter reminders over the course of the past year. We need, now more than ever, an aggressive commitment to the enforcement of our civil rights laws.”
When asked about the biggest chasms between the Black community and others in terms of social advancement, Clarke specifically noted areas of access to educational opportunities and housing as well as discrimination within the criminal justice system.