Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the historic gathering that marked the peak of the civil rights movement.
The thing about making history is that you rarely know you are a part of it.
In 1963, a couple of friends and I began planning a trip to the nation’s capital to participate in the “March on Washington.” I was 21.
I wanted to go, in part, because it was going to be the largest group of Black people I would ever see or meet in my life (a good time, young ladies and new friends). In the 1950s and ’60s, believe it or not, Black people may have been as disconnected from one another as they were to White people. For many, the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” was also a unity march.
I also wanted to make the trip because of the high regard my family (especially my grandfather, a retired railroad porter) had for A. Philip Randolph, who at the time was the most visible civil-rights leader I knew. Randolph, a leader in the civil-rights and labor movements, was a key organizer of the march.
I lived in the Bronx at the time of the march and worked for Lord & Taylor’s Department Store in Manhattan. My bosses and co-workers were worried about my trip to Washington and talked endlessly about concerns for my safety. Some even asked that I consider not going, which I found bewildering. Why? I was going to be with “my people.”
When the time came for the trip, my two buddies and I loaded up my new VW bug for the longest drive I had ever taken with the hope of having a good time — and maybe more.
On Aug. 28, 1963, I could hear the speeches but could not see who was talking, and so, I made my way through and around the crowds until I was situated below the podium just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. started to speak. I couldn’t see him, and I had no idea who he was. I loved the sound of his voice, his certainty and cadence.
“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community,” King said, “must not lead us to distrust of all White people, for many of our White brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
It was an inclusive message that reminded me of a seesaw that takes two to make work.
I heard what King said, but I didn’t know what it would mean, nor did I realize that the whole country was listening. I had no idea what significance it would have to the future of our nation. I got my first clues when I returned home and discovered I had attained celebrity status just by being one of the 200,000-plus people who was there.
The March on Washington, the first time I had been so far from the Bronx, changed my worldview. I grew up in a predominantly West Indian/Caribbean community, part of what is called “Fort Apache.” I knew of the terrible injustices in the South, but I didn’t relate what was happening there to my experience. I did not see myself as a freedom fighter. It was always about my taking care of my own business vs. worrying about others.
After the march, I began to understand that what was happening in the South was also happening to me, albeit covertly, and that our communities and cultures were not shielded. What I began to explore and understand was that “no one wins, unless we all win.” People like Gandhi, Buddha and James Baldwin made their way into my consciousness. The South stopped just being some other place.
It has been 50 years since the march. There has been change, but in many ways, it only looks as if things have changed. There are still many communities that are hostile toward Blacks; many more communities have a posture of tolerance that is used to mask fear of others.
Today, people quote the “I Have a Dream” speech like an anthem that we are obliged to remember even if we don’t understand its meaning. Its poetic ending tends to overshadow its universal message. If we read the speech carefully, it addresses not only the injustices experienced by “Negroes,” but by all people across the planet. That there is no middle ground on the way to equality. There is no equality light.
I think “we the people” should use King’s speech as a lens to view the current events of the day and to “take it on.” There is still a long way to go with some hurdles in between.
I’ve learned — and truly believe — that what separates us from one another as human beings is a manufactured fear of dreaming big. The March on Washington was a big dream that helped make other dreams possible. Today, there is an African-American president — that was thought to be an impossibility 50 years ago — and although this realized dream is seasoned with bitterness and fear, there is a new belief that “change has come.”
Race, religion, gender and ethnicity still cloud vision in this country and throughout the world. To move forward, it will take a new generation of young people with even bigger dreams who are not triggered or trapped by an intimate knowledge of past injustices, who are committed to not looking backward, while acknowledging and being thankful for the distinct gifts that we are for each other.
Here’s to another 50 years.
Bob S. Martin of Scottsdale is an artist who moved to Arizona in 2001.