The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28 will be a joyous event, celebrating one of the best known moments in American history: Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech.
But few will remember the fear that gripped Washington in the days before the march. I do. I could feel it in the muggy air of the capital's summer. The National Guard was deployed just outside the city; liquor stores were shuttered, as were banks. Congressional offices were shut down, as if before a coming storm.
Wes Barthelmes, then an aide to Sen. Frank Church, told me in the ;70s:
"This place [Congress] can be very insulated... you begin to forget the stench and smell and the struggle common people put up with. I remember the day Martin Luther King was holding his march on Washington, this place was terrorized. It was a peaceful, affirmative demonstration, but people up here are psychically terrorized by that kind of thing. For the long time it was the last institution to get the word of great changes, ferment."
If you had told anyone at the march in 1963 that in half a century, the controversial minister leading it would have a grand and gleaming marble statue not far away from Jefferson's, people would have said you were utterly daft.
The great advances in civil rights that were to follow in the years ahead were not at all certain as we gathered to watch the marchers stroll along in the dappled sun and shade on Constitution Ave. on a brilliant summer day. I was acutely aware of what was being said elsewhere across the nation. Dr. King was all too often referred to as "Martin Luther Coon." I covered White Citizens Council meetings in the Virginia suburbs where I heard death threats against Dr. King. I watched police dogs snarl at demonstrators in the uprisings in Cambridge on the eastern Shore of Maryland. I learned from personal experience about the powerful forces in government that feared and hated King. In 1964, I was part of a small group of women reporters who had an interview with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he made national headlines by saying that Dr. King was the "most notorious liar in the country." I remember the cold, barely controlled fury beneath his words.
But the march was a magical day for many of us who were there. In my novel, Camelot, about the Kennedy years, my young journalist heroine explains what I and others of my age experienced:
"The dream of America felt so real. They felt they could reach out and touch it in the soft pink haze of the ending summer day. It was one of those days you tell your grandchildren about. I was there. Standing in front of Lincoln, on the day when three hundred thousand people marched and Martin Luther King called out" I have a dream. How lucky they were to be young in this time, when everything was possible, when everything glittered with hope and dreams. Other generations might find disillusionment and failure. Not theirs. It was 1963, and they owned the future."
That sort of optimism seems barely imaginable today. And indeed, so many of the dreams did not materialize. The Vietnam war sapped much of the energy from what Dr. King would call his Poor People's Crusade, as the war tore the nation apart. I covered Jack Kennedy's funeral. And I watched in horror on TV as Dr. King was cut down on the balcony of a Memphis motel and Bobby Kennedy was shot in a back corridor of the Ambassador Hotel in LA. America turned dark, angry and violent as the riots exploded across the nation after King was murdered. Busing exploded in Boston. I was chairing a rally for the Equal Rights Amendment at Faneuil Hall when angry, anti-busing members of ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) flooded into the hall and shouted me down. We had to call off the rally in the ensuing chaos.
And just recently, watching the Trayvon Martin case unfold, I realized that Dr. King would have understood, with sadness, how a black teenager in America could be walking along near his home carrying iced tea and Skittles and wind up dead, 50 years after he himself had been murdered.
We still struggle mightily with race. But many things have changed. We have a president of African descent, unthinkable in 1963. We ended Jim Crow, we passed sweeping civil rights acts. Congress endorsed voting rights legislation , even if some are today trying to tear it apart. Dr. King is an American legend, with his own marble statue on the mall in Washington -- even if the peaceful revolution he and others began is not yet complete.
So maybe those of us in Washington that day, black and white together, did own the future. Or at least part of it. The unthinkable has become real in many other areas as well. Gay marriage is legal in many states, a woman is the leading contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 and three women sit on the Supreme Court. Blacks, women and Hispanics pushed Barack Obama over the finish line in 2012.
We did make history happen. It was hard, messy, sometime ugly and sometimes violent. Some people want to undo all of it.
Let's not let them do that.