I was on the 1963 Civil Rights March. I went with my mother and my friend Gail and her mother. We took a union-rented bus from Newark, NJ. It’s one of the most important memories of my life — and biggest march I have been on, though there have been bigger marches since then.
The most important part of the memory for me was not the march itself, which was so big that I had no sense of its bigness. I just remember a lot of people strolling under trees. I also don’t remember the famous “I have a dream” speech, because I skipped it. I had been on a fair number of peace marches in Washington, and I always skipped the speeches and went off to an art museum. So I convinced my mother to go to the National Gallery, and we were looking at art while Dr. King gave his speech.
What I remember most clearly was the ride down. We were in a line of buses with union banners on their sides, rolling south out of the New York metro area. As we got out of the Central Atlantic states into the Border states, into the south, we began to see black people standing by the side of the highway — entire families, just standing and watching the buses go by. There were a lot of them.
And when our bus drove into Washington, we saw black families standing on the porches of their houses, watching the buses go by. The way I remember it, they were not waving or cheering, they were simply watching, and their watching was intense.
The sense I got was — this march was hugely important. People hoped for real change, and they were not entirely certain they would get it. Still, they hoped.
Well, that is my memory. It was important enough to me, that I put it into a story I wrote, “Big Brown Mama and Brer Rabbit,” which is in a collection that got published this year, Big Mama Stories. In my story Brer Rabbit gets turned into a black man and becomes an auto worker in Detroit and later, after he has moved to the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul and is a middle-aged handyman, he goes on the march.
(The Big Mamas are magical beings, who come in all colors, including blue, green, orange and purple. They are tall tale characters like Paul Bunyan, only bigger and stronger, with a lot more skills and powers. If you want to know more about the story, you will have to get the book.)
I am not entirely enjoying the celebrations of the 50th anniversary, because they are putting the march into history, locking it into the past, and they are making it about Dr. King. He made the famous speech. But Bayard Rustin organized the march, and A. Philip Randolph called in every debt he was owed by the union movement for the march, and union locals all over the country rented buses and filled them. I had forgotten, but there were also special trains that carried marchers to Washington.
Most of all, the march was the people who organized it and went on it, and the people who stood on their porches and by the highway and watched. They knew this was important, and they hoped it would change America.
It didn’t. It isn’t part of the history because the job isn’t done. The march was for jobs as well as civil rights, and too much of the country is unemployed, far more than in 1963, in fact. The jobs that exist — especially for black people — mostly suck. Who wants to work in the fast food industry for minimum wage?
Instead of having an end to racism, we’re having a resurgence, including laws that are designed to disenfranchise people of color.
The Washington I remember from the march was black and full of ordinary working people. I was in Washington a couple of years ago. Georgetown was amazing: so rich and clean and white. It looked like a European capital. Washington is now the richest metro area in the country, and its black citizens are getting pushed out of the city, replaced by affluent white people.
In 1963, Detroit was the richest metro area in the country. Its money came from production. Washington is made rich by the federal government and the money that floods in to influence the government.
The country will be free when everyone can vote, and Washington listens to the voters, when the wall of money that isolates the city now is gone. It will be free when everyone has a decent job and a decent place to live, when healthcare and a good education is available to everyone, when racism and sexism are always confronted, when the government deals with real problems, such as global warming…
So, there is plenty of work left to do. The march was a milestone, but there is a long way to go. La lucha continua, as they say in the countries south of us.
P.S. The march was amazing and wonderful and inspirational. Being there was one of the best things that has happened in my life. (I added this, because I didn’t want to end on a down note, and because big changes happen over time, step by step. You don’t get where you want to go without taking each step.)
- 50 years later: Minneapolis march to close the gap (Nick Sucik, 2013)
- Will greater unity help “close the gaps”? (Sarah Lahm, 2013)
- OPINION | March on Washington – 50 years later: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set the stage for the environmental justice movement (LaDonna Redmond, 2013)