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Did We Really Learn the Lesson of the March on Washington?

By Julian Zelizer CNN Contributor | 8/28/2013, 8:25 a.m.
Fifty years ago this week, the civil rights movement rocked the nation's capital. Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins ...
Leonard Freed is best known for his image of Martin Luther King Jr, after King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) - Fifty years ago this week, the civil rights movement rocked the nation's capital. Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins and the other major civil rights leaders led thousands of activists in a march on Washington. Their goal was to build pressure on Congress to move forward with the civil rights bill that President Kennedy had proposed.

The march remains one of the most powerful examples of how social movements can affect political leaders and help break through the gridlock that often seizes Washington.

Although politicians and pundits constantly express nostalgia that things were easier in the past, the fact is that Congress has always been a notoriously difficult institution.

Where the problem today is that the parties are so polarized there is little room for agreement, in the early 1960s, the parties were so internally divided that bipartisan coalitions were able to stop legislative deals.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, an era when scholars and reporters complained about how little was accomplished on Capitol Hill, the main source of obstruction came from Southern Democrats and their conservative Republican allies. The "do-nothing Congress" was a familiar complaint then as it is now.

Southerners used their power as committee chairmen as well as the threat of the filibuster in the Senate to prevent action on civil rights and to ensure that any bill that did make it through --- as occurred in 1957 and 1960 --- was so watered down that it was ineffective.

Much to the chagrin of civil rights leaders, President Kennedy had shied away from proposing civil rights legislation during most of his term. He feared that sending a bill to Congress would hurt him in the 1964 election and cause Southerners to increase their opposition to his other domestic initiatives, like Medicare (in fact, Southerners ended up opposing civil rights and everything else, so Kennedy's strategy did not work).

Civil rights activists responded by continually applying pressure on the White House to take action. Activists staged protests throughout the South, hoping that civil disobedience --- and the violent responses of Southern authorities --- would stimulate national outrage about racial conditions in Dixie. They were right. These efforts culminated in June 1963, when the police tactics of Sheriff Bull Connor and the Birmingham, Alabama, police force against African-Americans, including the use of fire hoses and police dogs against children, were so abhorrent that Kennedy could no longer hold back on proposing a bill. Indeed, liberal Republicans and Democrats were ready to move forward without the president.

After Kennedy had finally sent a bill to the House, civil rights leaders rightfully didn't have faith that Congress would move forward with it, or that Kennedy would work hard to make sure the bill did not die. They had seen a Congress that was so gridlocked on this and other issues, they didn't have much reason to believe that this time things would be different. So ordinary citizens took it on themselves.