Monday, September 2, 2013

The March on Washington, 2013

National Mall, Washington, DC, Wednesday August 28, 2013

The year was 1965 or 1966 and I was about seven years old, playing at my friend's house while his parents were watching the news on TV. A report came on about a protest march led by Martin Luther King Jr. My friend's parents (both immigrants from Europe), called Dr. King a troublemaker and added something of this nature: "why doesn't that colored guy just mind his own business and let people live in peace?"

Back at home I recall parroting those sentiments to my parents another time Dr. King appeared on TV. I'm happy to report that both my mother and father (he also European by birth), in no uncertain terms repudiated my friend's parents' blatant bigotry, and assured me that Martin Luther King was indeed a very good man who was fighting a righteous battle on behalf of people that did not receive a fair shake in this country.

Those are my very first memories of Dr. King. Not long after that he would be dead and like President Kennedy before him, he would be elevated to the status of sainthood, at least in the minds of people my age who came to know both men more in death than in life. Not only that, his I Have a Dream speech came to be exalted into the realm of sacred American texts.

Last week as the 50th anniversary of that speech and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom approached, having no personal memories of the event, I asked my mother about her memories. She told me that she supported the march, yet like many people across the country, had apprehensions about the possibility of violence. She also recalled my grandmother who, while supporting the spirit and ideals of the march, objected to the means, especially the idea of Catholic priests and nuns marching. "It's just not their place" she said.

About two weeks ago it occurred to me that I would be in Washington DC at the same time as the golden anniversary of the march. Not only that, it turned out my work schedule allowed me to be present at the exact moment marking 50 years to the minute when Dr. King delivered his most famous speech. At that time, church bells would be rung throughout the country and President Obama would deliver a speech from the exact spot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King stood, overlooking the National Mall. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to be present at such an important historical event. After all, while people at that march a half century ago certainly might have predicted a change coming in America, I doubt that few if any in their wildest dreams would have imagined that fifty years from the moment Dr. King got up to address the multitudes on that sweltering Washington afternoon, the first African American President of the United States would stand on that very spot to commemorate the event.

The 2013 march was surely one for its own time, not in any way (except for the location) intended to be a re-enactment of the original. Perhaps the biggest difference between the march fifty years ago and the one this past Wednesday was its focus. More than 200,000 persons, the overwhelming number of them black, gathered in 1963 to demand that the laws of this country apply equally to everyone; that the promises made in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution would be fulfilled.

In the words of Dr. King: hundred years later (after the Emancipation Proclamation), the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

Those words were not the exaggerations of a firebrand painting a desperate picture only to prove a point. On the contrary; if anything they grossly understated the situation at the time. As correctly pointed out by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the original march was not merely an event, it was "the middle of a struggle." So called "Jim Crow" segregation laws were still in place all over the South, imposing separate and anything but equal facilities for people of color. Poll taxes still existed preventing poor people, mostly black, from participating in the most basic civil liberty, the right to vote. When people spoke up about the injustice, police stepped in using any means they felt necessary to prevent American citizens from exercising their constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and speech.

Things weren't much better up north. Although there were no official segregation laws in place, restaurants, hotels and other institutions refused to serve black people. Rocks were thrown at Dr. King in Chicago when he marched through white neighborhoods demonstrating the lack of equal housing in this city. Dr. King said of his experience here:
I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today.
So the trepidations of folks concerning trouble during the march were not unfounded. It took very hard work on both sides, the organizers of the March and the City of Washington and its police force, to make sure the 1963 demonstration would be peaceful.

Where there was a definite anti-establishment edge to the original March on Washington, (President Kennedy watched passively from the comfort of the White House a few blocks away), the organizers of last week's event had to drive establishment figures away with a stick. Two former presidents made the cut, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton joined Obama on the dais, along with the First Lady and President Kennedy's daughter Caroline. Ties to the original march included members of the King family and US Congressman John Lewis, the last surviving speaker at the 1963 March. And yes, Oprah Winfrey was there. It is a telling symbol of the changing landscape of America, that by far the richest, most main-stream establishment figure sitting up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day was an African American woman.

Unlike 1963, practically every human rights cause under the sun was represented this year. This may have diluted the message but let's face it, times have changed in fifty years:

The following day in his column in the Washington Times called "Washington Sketch", Dana Millbank bemoaned the fact that "2013 didn't live up to 1963." In his column:
  • He expressed his feeling that the preponderance of causes at this year's rally watered down the original intent of the march. 
  • He noted President Obama's predicting his speech wouldn't be as good as his predecessor's fifty years ago, then went on to suggest the president fulfilled his prediction. 
  • He mentioned the hundreds of vendors, mostly African American, selling chintzy souvenirs many of them featuring the images of not only King and Obama, but also of Treyvon Martin. 
  • And he also noted that the slick production values, VIP seating sections, and many other features of this year's event, ran diametrically opposed to the grass roots nature of the original. 

Everything he said was true, but that was exactly the point of the event. Today while the issue of civil rights for people of color is still a burning one, it certainly is not the only one. While much work has yet to be done, significant progress has been made since 1963, as evidenced at this march from the independent entrepreneurs selling their wares all the way up to the gentleman sitting today in the Oval Office. Beyond freedom and justice for people of color, the March of 1963 empowered a tidal wave of movements dedicated to justice and freedom for all groups of people. 

No one was ever under the delusion that the 2013 model of the March on Washington would be a replay of the original, as it would be impossible to match the spirit and urgency of that much different time. On the contrary, this event was a celebration not only of the 1963 event, but of how far we have come in fifty years, without ever losing sight of how far we have yet to go. Many people believe that the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the turning point in the civil rights movement; perhaps, (to paraphrase Winston Churchill), not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning of the struggle for equal rights in the United States.

To that end, it is certainly fitting that we celebrate the great event's fiftieth anniversary.

As a celebration I'd have to say this event was a rousing success. As you can see from the photographs, the group who gathered on the National Mall last Wednesday was made up of people of all shapes and sizes,  a diverse group of races, ethnicities, genders, ages, and sexual orientations, representing the depth and breadth of this country. 

Perhaps as Mr. Millbank wrote, there were "no speeches likely to live beyond a news cycle or two." But that hardly matters. In the end, more than the group of dignitaries gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the lasting image of the 2013 March will be the crowd of Americans who spontaneously assembled together in our nation's most hallowed spot, to share Dr. King's dream that the promise put forth by the fathers of our great nation might one day be fulfilled. When all the words spoken on that platform will long have been forgotten, the spirit of that day will remain...

... and what a magnificent day it was.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great posting Jeem! Sylvie