Thursday, August 28, 2008

August 28, 1963/2008

Reflections on the August 28, 1963 March on Washington and the nomination of Barack Obama on August 28, 2008--with photos.
Posted by Picasa

Living the Dream

I've been hearing and seeing the media and the blogs repeat that today is the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech. It is certainly that, and it is an historic speech. It is also a speech that King substantially repeated from earlier events, and what made it so historic was the occasion.

For it is the 45th anniversary of something larger: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when more than a quarter of a million people demanded justice.

I have two buttons to wear today. One you may have seen conventioneers wearing in Denver: in two shades of blue, it says” HOPE is in the air/Barack Obama/Invesco Field at Mile High/ Aug 28 2008.” The other is stark black on white. It says: March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom/August 28, 1963.”

In August 1963, Barack Obama was two years old. I was 17, and I marched that day. I’ll never forget it. Today I’ll be watching on TV as Barack Obama becomes the first African American to accept the nomination of a major party for President. In a way, it’s not something Martin Luther King even dared to dream.

[This narrative continues after photos below]

JFK talking about his Civil Rights bill
on national TV: June 11, 1963.
Posted by Picasa
In June 1963, President Kennedy introduced a Civil Rights bill, which not only covered voting rights but mandated an end to segregation in public places, gave the federal government new tools to desegregate public education, and created new job training and vocational education programs. Civil rights leaders decided to organize a March on Washington to support this bill. (JFK was afraid it would hurt the bill's chances and tried to dissuade them.)

In his televised address announcing the bill, President Kennedy said “We are confronted with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.”

That’s what it was to me and many others: a moral issue. For the past several years, but especially in 1962 and ’63, our TV screens had shown opposition and violence in Mississippi and Alabama to African Americans trying to exercise fundamental rights, including young men and women, just a few years older than me, who wanted what I wanted: a college education.

Because it was a moral issue, many churches got involved in the March, including Catholic clergy (the Archbishop of Washington gave the invocation, and the program included Protestant and Jewish clergy.)

I lived just outside a small town in western Pennsylvania, with an Italian mother, a father of mixed and only partially known Eastern European background, and I attended a Catholic high school. I was inspired by JFK, Martin Luther King, the essays of James Baldwin, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” etc., but it was reading about a local organization called the Catholic Interracial Council that gave me the idea I could actually be part of the March.

I contacted the priest who was named as the Council’s director. He helped secure my parents’ permission, and I was accepted as part of the group that would take one of the special trains to the March. As it turned out, I was the group. In the entire diocese, I was the only one to sign up. Our delegation was two priests and me.
Posted by Picasa
If you’ve seen some of the black and white film of that day, you’ve probably seen people getting off trains. There were something like 21 special trains that rolled into Washington. There was an amazing mood that day, which began on the train ride down. I guess I was on that train eight hours or more. I walked through the cars, and everyone was very subdued, cautiously friendly, and probably a little surprised to see a white, blue-eyed 17 year old boy. Most of the people were black, but the figure I've seen of 80% seems high.

Update 2013: Near the 50th anniversary of the March, I found some newly posted footage on YouTube, and was utterly amazed to see my 17 year old self in just that kind of black and white film--just off the train, walking down the platform of Union Station in Washington.  It's just a few frames--between 11:31-11:33--but it's me on the right of the picture, in my dark suit, white shirt and tie, looking serious until just before I walk out of frame, when I start to smile at the camera.

I’d grown up next door to a black family—oddly enough, they were the Robinsons (none was named Michelle, alas.) The oldest son was one of my three best friends until they went to public high school and I went to the Catholic high, and we drifted apart. I knew his family--I remember his father with particular affection-- and I had gone to an event or two at their church, so even though I didn’t relate Civil Rights issues to them directly, I’d had more contact than most of my Catholic school classmates.

Still, that didn't completely prepare me for seeing and being among so many black people. Then again, not even the black people there had ever seen so many black people together. But I think the basic feeling we had was the same, if for somewhat different reasons: awe.

But that was still to come. There was another special experience on the train--when suddenly and without any warning, I pushed open those heavy train car doors and entered an entirely different world: it was a car filled literally to the rafters with young people, college students, white and black. And they were singing. Folk songs, spirituals, Woody Guthrie and other political songs... A wave of happy, defiant sound hit me, and changed everything.

At home I listened to Peter, Paul and Mary and other popular folk singers on the radio, and I took out records from the library by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. But it hadn’t occurred to me that playing and singing was something I could do, until I stood at the end of that train car. The thrill of that moment led to nearly another half century of misspent youth. And it was a true spiritual experience.

When we reached Washington and got off that train, the reaction of everybody seemed to be the same as mine: utter amazement. There were so many people. I seem to recall that organizers hoped for 50,000 people. Soon I was hearing 100,000. By the end of the day most were saying 300,000 at least. By tradition as much as any real count, the number given is usually 250,000—a quarter of a million people.

Posted by Picasa

Posted by Picasa
I remember it was bright and hot on the march route, and it was not simply peaceful—it was as close to a definition of peace as I’ve ever experienced. An intense peace. Wonder. Awe. Gratitude for each other. Love. It was an altered state of consciousness for the entire march.

Before the March, people had been afraid that there would be violence. But from the time I got off the train, it was clear that violence was not a possibility. (And in fact, even though there were troops ready to come into Washington at a moment’s notice, there were fewer than 6,000 police for this quarter of a million people.)

I’m sure there was singing, chanting, clapping, but somehow I remember it as a sweet quiet, a walking joy. Only later did I realize that I was marching with Rosa Parks and Josephine Baker, Paul Newman and Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte and James Garner, Lena Horne and James Baldwin.

Posted by Picasa
Then we gathered around the Reflecting Pool for the program. In the photos of the crowd taken from the stage, I’m on the left, about halfway up. Although I'm a little hard to make out.

The sound wasn’t all that great as I recall, and the speeches were sometimes hard to hear. And they were, after all, speeches. We had walked a ways, and it was hot—-really hot, sitting still in the sun. I was more interested in the music: Dylan, Baez, Odetta, Lena Horne, Peter, Paul & Mary. Marian Anderson had sung earlier. I wound up wandering around a bit, looking at the signs, looking at people.

There was a young firebrand named John Lewis who spoke, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Famed labor leader Walter Reuther spoke: labor unions were an organizing force for the March, which was billed (as my button says) as a march for JOBS and Freedom. It was about the economy then, too—economic justice, equal opportunity.

Mahalia Jackson sang, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke. Even dulled by the heat, I remember hearing those words, feeling that crowd. King’s speech was about the fierce urgency of now.

“Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
King told the country that these rights could no longer be denied, and that efforts to secure these rights was only beginning. He said that half measures won’t be enough.

“We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Then he spoke to those who had suffered for their protests, to give them hope.

“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama...go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. At the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

That’s how the most famous passages of that speech begins. And even if it now survives mostly as a mini-soundbite (“I have a dream”), it’s worth recalling their purpose as well as their resonance.

Posted by Picasa
That’s the moment that has lasted in history, but the most powerful moment for me, being there, happened just afterwards: it was the singing of “We Shall Overcome.”

Are you kidding me?—250,000 people singing ‘We Shall Overcome”—it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

When the program was over, and the March leaders went off to eat with President Kennedy and talk about the Civil Rights bill, I went to the House of Representative offices of William Moorhead, a Pittsburgh congressman, with my priest companions. We washed up and chilled out for awhile before the train ride back.

Some days after we got back, I wrote an article about the March for the local Catholic weekly newspaper. It was printed under the title, “Eyes of Youth,” and it definitely has a young person’s point of view that might still have some resonance in 2008. First, on the public response to the March, before it became a part of history. But there’s an immediate transition to what the March ultimately meant for my generation. Here’s what I wrote then:

The big shock came to us when we returned home. After all the hours of standing, walking, riding, and marching: after seeing huge masses of dedicated and self-sacrificing people; after hearing the songs and speeches crying for freedom, we were vastly surprised to hear the dispassionate estimates of our effectiveness. The consensus seemed to be that we did little, of any, real good.

Most of these opinions were in reference to civil rights legislation, but to the young people this was not the real issue. The legislation will inevitably come, and it is for future generations to make it work, and to promote the true social integration of the races.

Is this impossible? Had there not been a march, there would be grave doubts about the practicality of realizing this American ideal.

But today, after the march, there can be no doubt. When a mass of people roughly equivalent to the population of Syracuse, comprised of different backgrounds, religions, races, and coming from different regions, could converge on Washington with such dedicated and dignified fervor as to make thoughts of violence absurd, then hope for the future is supremely justified.

It all held special meaning to the young people. They had come from many places, and for many reasons. Perhaps their thoughts were best expressed by a favorite folk singing group who sang these lyrics from a popular song at the march:
“How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”

From the singing on the Freedom Train, to the slow chant of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the young people brought spirit and compassion to a cause in which they deeply felt.

While all the banners for “Freedom Now!” will have to be satisfied by the present generation, the young people of today will also face a great task.

Prejudice is based mainly on ignorance. It was evident to the marchers that once the races begin to live and work together, as we marched together, meaningful integration can be achieved. It will fall upon the shoulders of the young people of today to see it through.
Posted by Picasa
So perhaps this is the legacy of my generation to the younger generation of today. It is the achievement of some level of “social integration” at the level of the heart as well as the mind that has made Barack Obama’s candidacy possible. Despite residual racism, particularly in older generations, his young supporters represent the real possibility that Dr. King’s dream of a time when people are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, is finally at hand.

Tonight I won't be at Mile High Stadium. (I'd hoped to be one of the ten Obama contributors invited, but alas...) But I'll be watching, and over my heart I will wear both those buttons, from August 28, 1963, and for the fierce urgency of today.

Postscript: Speaking of the American Promise, here is what Barack Obama said to end his acceptance speech before 84,000 people at Mile High stadium in Denver:

And it is that promise that forty five years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln's Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.

The men and women who gathered there could've heard many things. They could've heard words of anger and discord. They could've been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead - people of every creed and color, from every walk of life - is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one.

"We cannot walk alone," the preacher cried. "And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."

America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done. Not with so many children to educate, and so many veterans to care for. Not with an economy to fix and cities to rebuild and farms to save. Not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend. America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise - that American promise - and in the words of Scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Posted by Picasa

JFK to Obama: Tips for a Big Nomination Speech

In a few days, Senator Barack Obama will make his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination to be President. Breaking recent precedent, he will make this speech not in the convention hall itself, but in an outdoor stadium, Denver's Invesco Field.

The last time the Democratic nominee for President gave his nomination acceptance speech in a large outdoor stadium was in 1960, when John F. Kennedy spoke at dusk in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was another "change" election, and JFK was the youthful "change" candidate, opposed by the "experience" candidate, Richard Nixon.

In the previous two elections, the Democratic nominee had been Adlai Stevenson, whose speeches were intelligent and articulate, and who could make a case for the Democratic Party agenda. But though Stevenson engendered fierce loyalties in the party, he wasn’t exciting. He didn’t move large crowds. JFK knew that he could, and this event was the signal that he would in 1960.

So that’s the meta-lesson from JFK: if you’ve got it, use it. While pundits and the hot air networks counsel Obama to reign in the rhetoric and stick to laundry lists of programs, there will be 80,000 or so people in the stadium ready to rock. They want to hear what 80,000 voices chanting “Yes, We Can!” sounds like. Obama got this far by inspiring people. If he’s going to win, he needs to motivate those who got him this far. They will help him spread the enthusiasm.

We want to hear him talk about change, about hope, about the fierce urgency of now. We want a little “Yes We Can.” Democrats should go home from Denver on fire.

Sure, the context of 2008 is different: the country was uneasy but pretty prosperous in 1960, Eisenhower was still a popular President so Nixon had advantages McCain doesn’t. But JFK was new. He was younger than Obama (though he had been in the House and Senate for 14 years.) After 7 years as VP, Nixon seemed to be a known quantity. Voters were unsure: change, or experience?

The race remained pretty even, even after the debates which historians—in retrospect—often say were decisive for JFK. But in that fall, the most obvious difference was that JFK’s crowds grew and grew, not only in size but in enthusiasm. Doubts were overcome by the contagion of hope. That’s what needs to happen this fall, particularly in October.

Then there are lessons from the speech itself…

Lesson #2: Become the leader of the party. JFK began his speech complimenting the party and the platform, and with a litany of other Democrats.

Lesson #3: Confront the elephant in the room. For JFK it was his Catholic faith. For Obama, it’s race. JFK devoted about 3 paragraphs to reassuring voters that he was independent, with his first allegiance to America. Obama is speaking on the 45h anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Obama was 2 years old. In large measure, he is a fulfillment of King’s dream, and he should own it. And he can do it within a larger context of America and the American dream.

Lesson #4: Go after the Republicans directly.
JFK’s speech is remembered for introducing the “New Frontier.” (More about that coming up.) But he devoted five paragraphs in the middle of his speech to partisan rhetoric aimed at his opponent, Richard Nixon. For instance:

We know it will not be easy to campaign against a man who has spoken and voted on every side of every issue.

JFK then drew the contrast between the parties in terms that ought to be familiar today:

But we're not merely running against Mr. Nixon. Our task is not merely one of itemizing Republican failures. Nor is that wholly necessary. For the families forced from the farm do not need to tell us of their plight. The unemployed miners and textile workers know that the decision is before them in November. The old people without medical care, the families without a decent home, the parents of children without a decent school: They all know that it's time for a change.

Lesson #5: Focus on the future. That was really what distinguished JFK as a candidate, and it’s the natural move for the younger candidate to make (though in fact JFK was only 3 years younger than Nixon, and Nixon was a year younger than Obama is now.) JFK was influenced by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and his contrast of the Republicans as the party of the past and the Democrats as the party of the future. The Republicans practiced the politics of memory, he wrote in a book published a few years later, while the Democrats represent the Politics of Hope.

Here’s what JFK said:

Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.

In this section of his speech, JFK sketched some of the challenges. While today scholars like to see him as a Cold Warrior, and he did talk about the need to engage Soviet expansion, he also emphasized the need for peaceful means.

The world has been close to war before, but now man, who's survived all previous threats to his existence, has taken into his mortal hands the power to exterminate his species seven times over.

He spoke briefly about domestic challenges, including Civil Rights:

A peaceful revolution for human rights, demanding an end to racial discrimination in all parts of our community life, has strained at the leashes imposed by a timid executive leadership.

Then he reiterated the emphasis on change and the future:

It is time, in short for a new generation of leadership. ..The Republican nominee, of course, is a young man. But his approach is as old as McKinley. His party is the party of the past, the party of memory… Their pledge is to the status quo; and today there is no status quo.

Lesson #6: Articulate a vision. This is the point in the speech where JFK begins talking about the New Frontier, and he does it by anchoring it in the moment, the time and place where he is speaking:

For I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build our new West…

Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment; for the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won; and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier -- the frontier of the 1960's, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.

A little later he adds:

The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.

Lesson #7: Include the audience, and ask not what you can do for them, but what they can do for their country:

But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises. It is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer to the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride -- It appeals to our pride, not our security. It holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.

It would be easier to shrink from that new frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric -- and those who prefer that course should not vote for me or the Democratic Party.
But I believe that the times require imagination and courage and perseverance. I'm asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age--to the stout in spirit, regardless of Party, to all who respond to the scriptural call: "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be [thou] dismayed."

That is the choice our nation must make -- a choice that lies not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort, between national greatness and national decline, between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of "normalcy;" between dedication and mediocrity.

All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world looks to see what we shall do. And we cannot fail that trust. And we cannot fail to try.

Give me your help and your hand and your voice.”

That last phrase would be one JFK repeated many times on the campaign trail—a call to participation in his campaign.

The acceptance speech will be the first and last time of the general election campaign that the candidate has the attention of a large chunk of the electorate at one time for an uninterrupted statement of this length.

But it’s more than speaking to millions of voters, many of whom are just beginning to focus on the election. Obama’s previous big speeches were in the context of a primary campaign, when he had to distinguish himself and his message from several other candidates, and when he had particular limits on what he said about his opponents within the Democratic Party.

Now Obama can do what JFK did, and draw a direct contrast between himself as the Democratic candidate, and McCain as the Republican candidate. He can define the choice voters have in November.

But he is also speaking to Democrats and the people who have been with him so far. He can motivate them to work for him, which is especially important this year, for Obama needs highly motivated voters in several core groups, and enthusiastic volunteers to put the ground game in motion.

JFK managed to do both. Obama can, too. JFK inspired me, at 14 years old, to work for his campaign. His acceptance speech—which I recorded on our reel-to-reel tape recorder, and played for my social studies class—was a big reason why.