Today is the 40th anniversary of the great civil rights march on Washington. Which means it’s the occasion for every wind-bag in America of a certain age to provide personal thoughts and recollections (which is fitting enough because during the march itself it seemed like every wind-bag in the civil rights movement gave a speech, until Martin Luther King finally redeemed the event with The Speech). Having marched that day, and not wanting to take a back seat to any other windbag, here is some of what I remember.
I marched with my father. Although some were worried about the possibility of violence, my father was certain there was no danger and, within five minutes of arriving near the Washington Monument, I could see that he was right. My father had to decide which group we would march with — his liberal cronies at the Department of Labor where he worked, his union cronies (he was president of the local AFSCME chapter — mostly white leadership, mostly black membership), or his old pals from the Socialist party. We marched with the bureaucrats, met up with the union folks at the Lincoln Memorial, and attended a reception with the Socialists at a hotel that evening (I spent that time reading a magazine that previewed the upcoming football season; how I wish now I had engaged the Socialists).
Other than King’s speech, the thing that made the biggest impression on me was the presence and demeanor of the black marchers. This was my first encounter with members of the black middle class. Most of the folks I saw (or at least remember) were young, fresh, and optimistic. They had come to Washington to demand their rights, but few seemed to doubt that the battle for those rights was being won and that a new day was just about here. They seemed utterly confident that their personal futures would be bright. In that sense, the march was as much a celebration as a protest, it seemed to me. And if anyone was looking for preferential treatment, he or she hid it well.
The speeches, as I have said, were largely mediocre and went on forever under a hot sun. Then, finally, came Dr. King. My father almost never expressed admiration in any context. But very early in that speech, he gave me a look that I had never seen from him before and would never see again. King’s speech wasn’t one of those events that grows in stature as the years go by. It was an “instant classic.” I’m convinced that everyone at the march knew half way into the speech, that they would never again hear its equal. You can read the speech here, courtesy of Real Clear Politics. (My conservative cousin from New York may get a kick, as my father did, from this forgotten line — “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”).
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“Arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” Winston Churchill
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