Marching on Washington: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Vision for Unifying a Polarized Nation

We are united by the belief that America must move beyond extremist partisanship to move forward to achieve a “more perfect union.”
August 25, 2023
Photo credit: No Labels

Imagine standing in the sweltering heat of an August day in Washington, shoulder to shoulder with a quarter of a million other people, all holding the shared belief in a united and equal America. We were there—two young people from different worlds, connected by a conviction grounded in the ideals of our nation but missing from its reality.

Sixty years ago, on Aug. 28, 1963, we were among the throngs of Americans who gathered by the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall for what would become one of the most significant moments in American history—the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

One of us was a college student spending the summer of 1963 in Washington on the staff of a U.S. senator. The other was a 15-year-old working as a statewide youth coordinator in North Carolina and one of the youngest persons working with Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

We were drawn to the event by our shared belief that God created us equally, despite differences of race, class, sex, creed, or whatever else, but also by our revulsion at the racism and injustice then so pervasive in this country and so counter to that sacred truth.

The stated purpose of the March on Washington was advocating for jobs and freedom. But the underlying principle, the animating passion that drove so many Americans of all backgrounds to our National Mall that day, was the principle of equality and the goal of civil rights for every American.

Dr. King captured it so eloquently: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We did not meet until later in our lives. But like everyone else there that day, we each knew that we were witnessing history happen. When we recently sat along the Reflecting Pool to recount our experiences there, we both recognized how powerful an impact it had on each of us and on our nation.

Six decades later, we live in an increasingly diverse nation, and we can look proudly on the strides America has made toward Dr. King’s vision, among them bipartisan passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, neither of which would have been possible without that remarkable display of solidarity, equality, and unity that momentous August day.

Yet, we must recognize that the work of the Civil Rights Movement is far from complete. In fact, the struggle for equality, national unity, and justice are constant, and today it is under renewed attack. Sadly, we believe one of the biggest sources of this danger is in the very city where Dr. King and so many others gathered in the name of civil rights.

Extreme partisans on both sides have worked to tear down the spirit of unity and bipartisan problem-solving in Washington, D.C., that furthered the civil rights movement and so many other great accomplishments in our nation’s history.

Our political system no longer encourages cross-party collaboration for the good of the country but seems to motivate toxic partisanship instead. The costs, to all of us, are everywhere, from our soaring national debt to our broken immigration system to the pervasive and uncharacteristic pessimism of the American people.

This extremist partisanship has seeped beyond the Beltway into polarized communities across the country, encouraging prejudices, hostilities, racial and religious bigotry and hatred, and legitimizing politically motivated violence and even insurrection.

Meanwhile, millions of commonsense Americans find themselves not just frozen out of the political process but alienated from and disgusted with it.

As one of us wrote in an essay in June, “Maybe it’s how I came up in politics, but the notion that Democrats and Republicans should repel each other like magnetic poles strikes me as un-American.” It still does.

That’s why we are devoting our efforts to countering that antidemocratic trend as co-chairs of No Labels, a national movement of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents united by the belief that America must move beyond extremist partisanship to move forward to achieve a “more perfect union.”

No Labels has a 13-year record of promoting bipartisanship, including creation of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House of Representatives and the Common Sense Coalition in the Senate that have played a critical role in passing some of the most significant legislation of the past few years, such as the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill. We’ve worked hard to be a voice for the commonsense majority of Americans, cultivating a grassroots unified movement of like-minded citizens.

No Labels has been assailed for our effort to secure ballot access in all 50 states to potentially give Americans another choice in next year’s presidential election. Well-funded groups in Washington, D.C., that feed off of the extremism fueling today’s politics are engaged in a campaign to deny millions of commonsense voters more choices in the democratic process. It is a form of voter suppression, and it is anathema to what Dr. King exhorted on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

As we reflect on that unforgettable August day 60 years ago and the progress we’ve made since, we’re ready to take on the work that lies ahead. Today, we are on a mission together to rekindle the spirit of that day—a spirit of unity, equality, freedom, collaboration, and common purpose. But we cannot do this alone.

In honor of Dr. King and the countless others who marched that day, we call on all Americans—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike—to take a stand. Engage in a conversation with someone whose political views differ from your own. Advocate for compromise and collaboration in your local and national leaders. Vote for democracy. Vote for freedom and jobs.

Vote for equality. Vote for the future of our nation that Dr. King dreamt of – a nation where character and mutual respect of our common humanity matters most. In a world where misinformation seems to cloud our path, let us make the truth of our unity and shared progress our guiding light.

Dr. King eloquently and prophetically proclaimed his dream; now, it’s up to all of us to keep that dream alive and to move forward, as ever, as “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman is a founding chairman of No Labels. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is a civil rights icon and national co-chair of No Labels. @JoeLieberman @DrBenChavis @NoLabelsOrg 

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