So much is being written and commented upon on television about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, August 28th, this month. Accordingly, I thought it might be useful to share my own recollection of the event, in real time, as it then occurred:
"A quarter of a million people, human beings who generally had spent their lives treated as something less, stood shoulder to shoulder across that vast lawn, their hearts beating as one. Hope on the line. When hope was an increasingly scarce resource."
"There is no dearth of prose describing the mass of humanity that made its way to the feet of the Great Emancipator that day. The March on Washington has been compared to a tsunami, shockwave, a wall, a living monument, a human mosaic, an outright miracle."
"Still I can say to those who know the event only as a steely black-and-white television image, it's a shame that the colors of that day -- the blue sky, the vibrant green life, the golden sun everywhere -- are not part of our national memory."
"For those of us who put the March together, several aspects of that day struck a chord and went on to have a profound effect on us. First was the most obvious--the size of the crowd. It was truly staggering. Estimates vary widely, depending on the agenda of who was keeping count, but those of us who were involved in planning The March put the number at a minimum of 250,000. The showed up to connect with the Movement, to draw strength from the speakers and from each other. This was perhaps not surprising, since the underpinning of the Civil Rights Movement has always been our sense of communal strength. It is in part why the Black Church was a focal point for the Movement; it allowed individuals to see that they were not alone in their suffering, their loss of dignity, their humiliation."
"But congregations were measured in the hundreds of families, not hundreds of thousands. The March was an especially important milestone for African-Americans because it allowed many who suffered the degradation and sometimes physical abuse of racism in relative isolation to share with a vast number of people their pain as well as their hope an d optimism for a better day."
"A kind of a unique energy emanated from the massive crowd, and it was just that energy that made the words in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech resonate. He had, in fact, used the phrase " I have a dream" in previous speeches with hardly anyone registering anything exceptional about it. It played out differently that August day. The reason is simple: The power was woven in the feedback loop that jumped between the words, the speaker, and his audience. It was those quarter of a million souls who made the "dream" the "Dream." It was a perfect storm. I know, because I was standing no more than 50 feet behind Martin when I saw Mahalia Jackson, his favorite gospel singer, look to him with a beaming face and shout a piece of advice. As the suggestion took root, I watched Martin push aside the text of the speech I'd helped prepare -- a text, it bears noting, that did not contain the phrase "I have a dream".
"At that moment I looked to the person standing next to me. "These people out there today don't know it yet," I said, but they're about ready to go to church."
"Something else the organizers became aware of, more surprising than the size of the crowd, was its diversity in age. Naturally we had expected college students, even some high school students, but there were little children, septuagenarians, and everything in between. It was exhilarating to see the generations come together over such an important issue. Even those who knew they would never live to see the needle budge a millimeter in favor of Negroes, let alone make it to "the Promise Land," were they're fighting for those on down the line. This was one important key to The Movement, out in the open but invisible to most who opposed us: It was never about me now; it was always about someone someday. It could not have worked otherwise." - From my book Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation
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