Watching the anniversary of the March on Washington, I remember seeing the event on black and white television 50 years ago. I had just turned 21, and I would soon be able to cast my first presidential vote for Lyndon Johnson, who passed The Voting Rights Act in 1965, at a time when blacks were frequently denied that right, let alone the possibility of becoming the leader of the most powerful country in the world.
It would have been hard for me to believe back then that there would be a black president, a re-elected black president. It would also have been hard to believe that the voting rights so hard-earned would be in peril again today.
My early years were shaped in the south, throughout a period of racial upheaval. I stood shoulder to shoulder with people I referred to as colored, then negro, then black, then African-American, connotative acknowledgment of the changes happening around us. My late husband, Chaim Stern, told me stories of his experiences as a Freedom Rider, traveling to the deep South in the early 1960s to test civil liberties and discrimination. Black or white or whatever color, we were all a part of an historical movement gathering strength.
Among my own small protests to the racial divide, I remember:
- Sitting on my unabashedly liberal grandmother's lap in the cab of Johnny the gardener's pickup truck in the 1950s, the smell of fertilizer around us. He talked wearily of getting lower wages than the less experienced white gardeners, as the neighbors stared at us from their jalousied windows.
- Walking, pigtailed and deliberate, to the very back of the K bus in Miami, with head-turns from the whites in the front, weary smiles from the hotel maids and busboys and decent people I march toward in the rear.
- Drinking from the "colored" fountain at Rexall's drugstore in Miami Beach in the 195os, which tasted the same as the water from the "whites only" fountain.
- Leading an orientation group of black students integrating the University of Florida in the early '60s, and getting heckled with racial epithets as we pass.
- Teaching, then tutoring, the first couple of black teens at Marietta High School, in Georgia, a formerly segregated high school, in 1966. Realizing that the struggling black students' previous textbooks at Lemon Street School were published in the 1940s. Befriending the only black teacher at Marietta High, a lovely woman who had been secretary to Gone With the Wind author, Margaret Mitchell. She warned me to consider the consequences of having lunch with her.
- Working with community organizers to integrate my white-flight neighborhood in south Atlanta, in 1967. Attending a formal tea at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin Mayes, he a beloved president of Morehouse College, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had studied. Volunteering for Andrew Young, (later to become the mayor of Atlanta!), and other civil rights activists who worked alongside King. These exceptional people were still ostracized by many white neighbors in the area.
I feel despair the next year, 45 years ago, when I see that balcony scene in Memphis on a black and white TV, and the smoldering unrest it ignites. My husband, at officers training at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, is about to ship off to Vietnam. We have an infant son. He tells me that most of the drafted soldiers he will be administrating are black, and somehow it seems especially unfair.
In the span of my lifetime, there have been victories and tragedies in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King's dream of an America where his children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" has almost come true.
There is still deep division. But I do take heart that despite recent setbacks, the keynote speaker at this commemoration 50 years after Martin Luther King is President Barack Obama.