Setting the Wheels of Civil Rights in Motion

by Kathy Martinez on August 21, 2013 · 0 comments

Last month, I had the honor of speaking at the National Urban League’s annual conference in Philadelphia. That city is often called the cradle of liberty, because it’s where the most consequential words in American history were drafted: that all people are created equal with certain unalienable rights. And although those words didn’t truly apply to all segments of society at the time, they nevertheless came to represent the moral imperative to which our nation should strive.

Next week, on Aug. 28, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of the most significant demonstrations of that moral imperative in our history − when a quarter of a million people gathered to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak about his dream of a better America and “the fierce urgency of now.”

1963 March on Washington aerial view

1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

I was a child and 3,000 miles away in California when the march occurred, but I remember my parents talking about it. I didn’t realize it then, but they, too, were involved in a struggle for civil rights. I was born blind. My sister Peggy was also born blind. We were the middle of six children, and as of yet there is no diagnosis for our blindness. From day one, our parents fought for us to be treated equally, to be a part of, not separate from. They didn’t think of themselves as activists. They were just parents trying to do the best they could for their children. I suppose they, too, felt a fierce urgency.

At the time, there was no law backing them up. The disability rights movement was just emerging, and its leaders looked to the civil rights movement for guidance as they too took their message to the streets of Washington. They made disability rights the next car on the long train of progress led by other groups, including African-Americans, women and the LGBT community. As a result, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Like other pieces of civil rights legislation before it, the ADA strengthened our nation’s moral imperative. Because, clearly, America’s ideal of equality holds no water unless it truly means all.

I didn’t learn until I was older that the March on Washington’s official title was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Those four additional words are so important, because economic empowerment through work is the primary route out of poverty to self-sufficiency. It’s the key to advancement for any group fighting against marginalization, segregation and social exclusion.

This principle is the crux of our mission at the Office of Disability Employment Policy. Because despite significant progress made since the passage of the ADA, much work remains to be done. As President Obama said on the ADA’s 20th anniversary in 2010, “We’ve come a long way. But even today, too many Americans with disabilities are still measured by what people think they can’t do, instead of what we know they can.”

My guess is that these words resonate with anyone — whether they have a disability or not — who has ever felt judged on superficial grounds instead of by what they can do, or — as Dr. King so eloquently said that historic day — by the content of their character. That’s why, on Aug. 28, my ODEP colleagues and I will take a moment to celebrate the March on Washington and the wheels it set in motion. Then we’ll get back to work to ensure they keep rolling.

Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.

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