Fifty years is a long time; a very long time. A 50th anniversary is always worthy of commemoration, and naturally occurs within the framework of modernity. Fifty years ago, on an oppressively hot humid day on August 28th, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people marched for freedom and jobs in an event twenty years in the making. They came on buses, trains and on foot; slept wherever they could or perhaps not at all. They marched through the nation’s capital, towards the mall, not knowing what to expect or how things might end. It was a dangerous time for protestors and in Washington D.C.; imprisonment, beatings and even killings were (and continued) to occur. But they came in their finest, marching and standing in that unrelenting heat all day long.
Fifty years later, in 2013, it took days of events to commemorate all that occurred on that one day. A week’s worth of marches, demonstrations, speeches, and festivities culminated in an all-day rally on August 28th, 2013. Over five hours a schedule of military minute precision brought performers and speakers to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Early on the crowd (which stretched from monument to monument) was led by Andrew Young in; Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Freedom. This set a communal tone for a crowd diverse in age, background and agenda. Another sing-along that either conjured strong memories or made one think of one’s parents, was Peter and Paul singing Blowin’ In The Wind. Anyone familiar with Peter (in particular, but also,) Paul and the late Mary won’t be surprised to learn that Trayvon Martin’s parents stood with the performers. Many who took the stage were living remembrances of the 1963 March. Representative John Lewis (the youngest speaker in 1963) invoked sentiments repeatedly echoed on the steps; “The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights. So I say to each of us today, we must never, ever give up. We must, ever give in. We must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”
Two of Dr. King’s children spoke, but it was Christine King Farris, King’s older sister who surprised and moved the crowd. She referred to herself as perhaps not the oldest person present but certainly the only one who had known Dr. King since he was in diapers. She hadn’t been able to attend 50 years prior, due to a bad flu, but had watched her brother on television and knew something magical had happened. She spoke eloquently, powerfully and personally and the crowd felt they had been invited into the circle. Reverend Bernice King, clearly inheriting her father’s gift for oration, was inspiring; “We are still chained by economic disparities, class inequalities and conditions of poverty for many of God’s children in this nation and around the world. If we are going to continue the struggle for freedom and create true community, then we will have to be relentless in exposing, confronting and ridding ourselves of the mindset of pride, and greed, and selfishness, and hate, and lust, and fear, and idleness, and lack of purpose and lack of love as my brother said for our neighbor.” She ended her remarks at precisely 3:00 PM for the ringing of the bell. The bell, the crowd learned, was salvaged from the Birmingham Baptist Church, a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that led us to this day.
The most remarkable aspect of the day’s programming was that of having three United States Presidents on the agenda. Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama were greeted like rock stars and did not disappoint. They paid homage to the work of Dr. King and the strides of the movement, but as one would expect from world leaders, they also carefully criticized complacency, or worse; backsliding. It is a difficult conundrum, complacency. While it is natural to be reactionary to policies and actions that are blatantly racist, it is challenging to keep the fire burning day to day. When we are no longer daily confronted with signs of “Whites Only” or bus and school segregation, our shoulders lower and we breathe easier. But, as the speakers reminded us throughout the day, there is so much left to do. Poverty, incarceration, immigration, voting rights and equality are very current issues. Progress has been made, but we are nowhere near the finish line.
It is so tempting to lose our focus, to give into distraction. In fifty years we’ve evolved into a nation of perpetual distraction and extroversion. Where the 1963 March was an open and accessible event, the 2013 event was constrained and produced for the media. Enormous television camera towers blocked the view for all but the “ticketed” attendees (an oddity juxtaposed to a day celebrating equality.) Celebrities with no obvious connection to the movement spoke and sang (or lip synched) for the cameras. Two dance groups (in very photogenic costume) performed, an odd artistic choice for any rally with limited views. The singers (except for Peter and Paul) sang gospel music, even though international (and even national) folk singers still abound today. But the 2013 event was packaged for viewers back home. That isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different. As were the 20-somethings playing candy crush during the speakers, and the thousands of selfie pics being taken throughout the day. But amongst all that noise were young, middle-aged and 1963 alumni, riveted and moved. Heads bowed and bobbed, hands waved in solidarity and to this attendee it looked like hope.