CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fifty years ago, America witnessed the gigantic March on Washington when 250,000 people, the largest gathering of its kind, heard many petition the government for change. Speakers included 34-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. who proclaimed his dream to overcome history.
As noted by cultural icon Harry Belafonte, the time had come to make those comfortable with oppression uncomfortable. The march, propelled by Sam Cooke's classic piece titled "A Change is Gonna Come," coincided with President John F. Kennedy's plan to submit to Congress a landmark civil rights bill.
This is a year for commemorations, such as the 150th anniversary of West Virginia statehood and President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. It is more than ironic that it is also when the U.S. Supreme court gutted the Voting Rights Act, a key component of the movement for human rights, respect, and fairness hailed as breakthrough legislation a half century ago.
Few may understand that landmark legislation is seldom permanent. Upon passage, opponents gather to plan its eventual challenge and demise. Examples are many.
Amid the Depression, an outcry for fairness by veterans and working people resulted in a sea of social, employment and economic legislation including the National Industrial Recovery Act. Nicknamed the "Blue Eagle Act," the NIRA did many things including Section 7 that provided workers the right to chose a union to represent them in their quest for better wages, hours and working conditions in the private sector.
Within only a few years, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the act. In turn, sections were salvaged and passed as the National Labor Relations Act or Wagner Act. Again, this act was weakened a decade later by the Taft-Hartley Act, which included Section 14b that permitted states to pass anti-union legislation designed to entice a jobs shift from the industrial and unionized northern states.
Another example is black lung legislation. Propelled by events in West Virginia including the march on the state capital by the Disabled Miners and Widows Association and the Black Lung Movement, along with continuing mining disasters such as Mannington, the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1969.
As part of that movement, activists including Ken Hechler, Arnold Miller, Helen Powell, Craig Robinson -- along with West Virginia doctors I.E. Buff, Hawey Wells and Donald Rasmussen -- were instrumental in drafting black lung legislation that made the disease recognized as a work-related outcome of mining coal.