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Rep. Lewis says Katrina and March on Washington Highlight Problems of Race and Class

August 29, 2006
Press Release

America remembered two pivotal moments in its history this week, the 43rd anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice (August 28, 1963) and the first year since the Gulf Coast's devastation by Hurricane Katrina (August 29, 2005), with particular concern for the continued debilitation of one of the world's great cities-New Orleans. The coincidence of these defining moments in American history highlights the consistent relevance of the Civil Rights Movement and the lingering challenges this nation must face. With these thoughts in mind, Rep. John Lewis made the following statement:

"As we pause to reflect on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the 43rd anniversary of the March on Washington, it is evident that the message of the Civil Rights Movement still needs to be heard. This nation's response to Hurricane Katrina reveals, more than any other recent event, that we are still a nation divided by race and class.

"In 1963, as co-chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, we marched on Washington to focus attention on the need for political and economic justice for black people in America. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day I talked about the hundreds and thousands of African Americans who had no money for transportation because they lived on starvation wages or had no pay at all.

"I pointed a finger at our government demanding to know where the homeless and starving of this nation could find help. I talked about the need to address the injustice of police brutality and the failure of both political parties to confront their responsibility to enfranchise African Americans both politically and economically.

"That day the fire of youth was still in my bones, but those words still ring with relevance today. During the crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina, it became painfully clear to this nation and the world that a large segment of American society is locked out and literally left behind. The remnants of the same injustice we marched on Washington to protest 43 years ago was still visible in the drama of neglect and abandonment that we watched unfold before our very eyes only one year ago.

"In the Civil Rights Movement, we looked to the federal government as a sympathetic referee in the cause of equal justice. Where is the leadership today in the White House or the Congress that realizes the purpose of government is not just to serve the rich and the self-sufficient, but also to defend the poor, the sick, the elderly, the starving, the homeless, and the suffering in America. Yes, self-reliance is the responsibility of every individual, but Hurricane Katrina proves that virtue can fail. What then is the responsibility of a humane, compassionate society when people cannot fend for themselves?

The legacy of a great nation is judged not by the might of its military or the size of its treasury, but by the way it treats its citizens. There is still time to change the reality of American neglect that Hurricane Katrina brings to light. I hope that in this session of Congress we will have the courage and the dignity to put politics aside and let justice for all the victims of Hurricane Katrina prevail."