Sunday, September 01, 2013

An Altered State: My March on Washington (50 Years Later)

I was 17 and a Catholic high school student when I participated in what was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. I  heard my own beliefs expressed by President Kennedy in his television address that June: “We are confronted primarily by a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

 In the weekly newspaper for the Greensburg diocese, the Catholic Accent, I read about an organization called the Catholic Interracial Council that was inviting people to go to the March. I contacted the priest who was named, who talked to my parents. He must have been convincing because I got permission to go. But I got my first indication of just how small this group was going to be when I attended a meeting, and it was two priests—and me. A photographer from the Catholic Accent snapped our picture as I pretended to paint the already completed banner we would carry.

 As it turned out, we were the only three people from the diocese to march under that banner. We would meet many other people from the Pittsburgh area, organized by religious groups of various denominations as well as by labor unions and civil rights groups. Many traveled to the March from all over the country by bus, and a few by plane, including celebrities from Hollywood and legendary entertainer Josephine Baker from Paris. I boarded a special train from Pittsburgh, one of the twenty or so originating from various places that were added to take people to the March.

 Recently reviewing video from that day posted on YouTube, I was amazed to see a few frames of my 17 year-old self arriving at Washington’s Union Station, walking towards the camera and trying to look appropriately serious, in my dark suit, white shirt and tie. (I'm on the far right at 11:32 or so.)

 I also looked alert. Vigilance to the possibility of violence was universal that day. From police commissioner Bull Connor unleashing police dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, to the murder of Medgar Evers outside his home in Mississippi, it had been a brutal summer in the South. It’s been estimated that over 14,000 demonstrators across the South (including high school students) were arrested during those months, with at least one death.  But the March was very well organized along principles of non-violence.  It was the template used for demonstrations afterwards.

 When I got home I wrote of the “dedicated and dignified fervor” around me at the march. But high spirits were also part of that day’s rhythm. From Union Station to the Lincoln Memorial there was always singing. For me it started even earlier, when I restlessly explored the train, wandering through one quiet car after another until I suddenly pushed open a heavy door to a car literally packed to the rafters with young people. Some were perched in the luggage racks. Several at the far end of the car were playing guitars, and everyone was singing.

 The march itself was like one long song. It is more powerful in my memory than the hours of speeches at the reflecting pool. Looking into the faces of the people nearest me, and all of us looking around, my feelings became a reflection of what we felt in common. We were astonished by our numbers, by the fact of us all there, of the reality that was completely new. The overwhelming mood was wonder. It was a sustained altered state, a living dream.

 We had a sense of unanticipated numbers on the march, but the dimensions of the day weren’t clear until we got to the reflecting pool. So many people (since settled at 250,000, the largest demonstration in U.S. history to that date) and yet the transfixing feeling of peace—I don’t think anyone had foreseen this.

 I saw the joy and wonder and the tears as black people of different ages and from different parts of the country saw each other there. I was also aware that in this context they could see a young white face undistorted by hate or contempt.

 We’d marched and sung together, but even as an audience for the program at the Lincoln Memorial, the interactions didn’t stop-- interactions that in the mid-1960s were still rare. Now we stood in line together at portable water fountains and toilets. We bunched and sprawled on the grass together, sweating under the same steamy sun, both drowsy and responsive to the inspiring words and music coming through the not always comprehensible fuzz of the sound system. We felt careful courtesy becoming a release into a common regard. We looked at each other.

 We listened to Dr. Martin Luther King together, quoting an American hymn—“From every mountainside, let freedom ring!” We heard his American litany reach its crescendo: “Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!...Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!”

 “And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring... from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’"

 He spoke of a dream that he saw reflected in the water in front of him.

 The official intent of the March was to support passage of the Civil Rights bill that President Kennedy sent to Congress a few days after his June speech. Immediately afterwards I recall commentary in the press calling it a failure because that bill was stalled in Congress (it would pass in early 1964.) Today the march is better remembered than the political reason for it.

 Race has still not been erased as deep separation, nor has full racial justice been achieved. But fifty years after that day, my memories aren’t of politics or even history. They are physical. They are of a future glimpsed by being lived.

Fifty years later President Obama called this day "as important as any day in American history."  In his speech at the Lincoln Memorial he carried the theme sounded by Martin Luther King--of no one being free unless all are free--into the present and the future:

Because they marched, America became more free and more fair -- not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability. America changed for you and for me. and the entire world drew strength from that example, whether the young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid."

"But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago."

 "That’s where courage comes from -- when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from.   And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on Earth for every person. With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit, and prepares them for the world that awaits them. 

 With that courage, we can feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise. America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we’ll get back up. That’s how a movement happens. That’s how history bends. That's how when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we’re marching." 

 "There’s a reason why so many who marched that day, and in the days to come, were young -- for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream differently, to imagine something better."

[More at Dreaming Up Daily, Blue Voice and Kowincidence.]

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