Standing on the National Mall on Saturday, inspired by the presence of tens of thousands, it would be easy to get caught up in the gauzy, dreamy reminiscence of the summer of 1963. But we would do well to remember just how ugly those times really were.
On June 12 of that year, Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP, was gunned down in his driveway while his wife and children cowered inside their home. On Sept. 15, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and died when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. In between those two horrifying acts of domestic terrorism, and many unpublicized ones, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said during his speech on Aug. 28, 1963. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
Yes, the extemporaneous “Dream,” portion of King’s speech is what is most often remembered, but the bulk of his remarks were rooted in the harsh realities of the day. One of those harsh realities was that five years earlier on that very date, Aug. 28, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi, was shot and his body mutilated after he was accused of making a flirtatious remark to a white woman.
At Saturday’s 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Simeon Wright, a cousin of Till who was with him that day in 1955 drew parallel’s between Till’s murder and the murder of Trayvon Martin and the verdicts that followed the trials of their assailants.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, who was scheduled to speak at the 1963 march, but didn’t make it that day, told Saturday’s crowd to reclaim the notion of “Stand Your Ground” changing its meaning from a law that gives license to kill those whom citizens deem a threat, to something positive and proactive.
“Make ‘stand your ground’ a positive ring for all of us who believe in freedom and justice and equality,” Evers-Williams said. “That we stand firm on the ground that we have already made and be sure that nothing is taken away from us, because there are efforts to turn back the clock of freedom.”
“When they ask us for our voter ID take out a photo of Medgar Evers; take out a photo of [Andrew] Goodwin [James] Cheney and [Michael] Schwerner; take out a photo of Viola Liuzzo. They gave their lives so we could vote.”
Sharpton harked back to the theme of the returned check.
“50 years ago Dr. King said that America gave blacks a check that bounced in the bank of justice and was returned marked ‘insufficient funds.’ Well, we’ve redeposited the check. But guess what? It bounced again. But when we look at the reason this time it was marked ‘stop payment.'”
They had the money to bail out banks and major corporations and give tax breaks to the one percent, but not for municipal workers, teachers or Head Start, Sharpton noted.
Sharpton said we also must work together to end violence and mysogyny.
“We cannot sit around and watch the proliferation of guns in our communities or any other community. Let me say to our young brothers and sisters. We owe a debt to those that thought enough of you to put their lives on the line. We owe a debt to those who believed in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves. We need to conduct ourselves in a way that respects that. Don’t you ever think that men like Medgar Evers died to give you the right to be a hoodlum or to give you a right to be a thug.
“We need to teach our young folk, I don’t care how much money they give you, don’t disrespect your women. We’ve got some housecleaning to do and as we clean up our house, we will then be able to clean up America.”
Sharpton also addressed the theme of the “dream.”
“They will romanticize Dr. King’s speech. But the genius of his speech was not just the poetry of his words. The genius of his speech is, the with bloodshed in Birmingham, with Evers having been killed, with James Farmer one of his core leaders in jail. He didn’t stand here and discuss the pain. He didn’t stand here and express the anger. He said in the face of those that wanted him dead that no matter what you do, I can dream above what you do. I see a nation that will make change if we pay the price. Others saw voting booths we couldn’t use. King saw and possibility of an Obama 50 years ago. The world is made of dreamers that change reality because of their dream. And what we must do is we must give our young people dreams again.”
Note: I posted this item two years ago. As I head to D.C. for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I think it is even more relevant.
Today, Aug. 28, marks the 48th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But the seeds for that march were planted two decades before Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.
A. Philip Randolph, best known as the founder and head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, conceived a mass march on Washington in the early 1940s to rally the national black community to fight employment discrimination, particularly in the defense industry.
“The movement grew out of the plight of the urban Negro worker on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, black unemployment having reached 25 percent in 1940,” Benjamin Quarles wrote in his essay “Labor Leader at Large” (Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, 1982). The long-existent discriminatory practices in hiring, in on-the-job training and in upgrading were more aggravating than ever to the Negro workers as they noted their country’s eagerness to contrast the American creed of liberty and equality with the suppressions that characterized the Fascist nations, Hitler’s Germany in particular. And although American industry was increasing its production to meet the needs of the national defense program, blacks were being turned away at the defense plant gates.”
In the fall of 1940, Randolph and representatives of the NAACP and the Urban League met with President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House, but the meeting netted little in the way of opening those defense plant doors. So Randolph and other black leaders formed a March on Washington Committee and scheduled a march for July 1, 1941.
In a column published on the front page of the June 14, 1941 issue of The New York Age, Randolph wrote:
“As the day approaches for the all out, total dramatic march on Washington and demonstration at the Monument of Abraham Lincoln for jobs and justice in national defense and the abolition of discrimination in Government departments, interest, sentiment and enthusiasm for this movement continues to mount daily. The task to mobilize Negroes throughout the nation for such and occasion is tremendous and herculean, but this is why it will be effective, powerful and unmistakable evidence of the Negroes’ determination to put a stop to discrimination against him on jobs provided by the money of the taxpayers in our country.
. . . “I appeal to the conscience, spirit and heart of Negro America, including men, women, youth, workers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, social service workers, office workers, railroad toilers, farmers, housewives, Negroes from every village town and hamlet; Negroes who are employed and unemployed; those in school, church, fraternal lodge, fraternity and sorority throughout the length and breadth of America to rally behind the march on Washington. More than any other single demonstration, this march on Washington is certain to make white America know that black America is here and has made up its mind that they shall leave no stone unturned in attempting to make democracy and liberty in our country real and true.”
Just the thought of tens of thousands of black folks demonstrating at the Lincoln Memorial gave Roosevelt pause. According to Quarles, he attempted to use several political weapons in his arsenal to get Randolph to call the march off. He described the plan as “bad and unintelligent” and enlisted the assistance of the First Lady, Eleanor, and New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia — both of whom were popular among blacks — to persuade the leaders to stand down. But Randolph wasn’t going away that easily.
Plans for the march continued until just a week before the scheduled march Roosevelt blinked, signing into law Executive Order 8802, which barred discrimination “based on race, creed, color or national origin” in the defense industry and in government. The president also formed the Committee on Fair Employment Practices.
Only then was the march cancelled. But Randolph still did not let down his guard. He declined an invitation to serve on Roosevelt’s fair employment practices committee and instead kept the March on Washington Movement alive to keep a watchful eye on the government’s progress.
Sixteen years later, in 1957, at the request of Martin Luther King, Randolph was one of the sponsors at a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, to bring attention to lingering civil rights issues. According to Quarles, Randolph gave a stirring address to a crowd of more than 20,000 gathered on the Lincoln Memorial on May 17 of that year. Then in 1963 it was Randolph who proposed and led the March on Washington (which was skillfully organized by Bayard Rustin) at which King delivered his “Dream” speech.
A threatened hurricane forced the postponement of the dedication of a new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, which was to take place today in Washington. I trust the monument will withstand whatever Hurricane Irene has in store. My bigger hope is that the spirit of the movement for jobs and justice continues to gain strength.
Recently, I bought the url whosmyfather.com, thinking I might ultimately turn this blog into a more interactive space where people could explore their relationships with their fathers (whosyourdaddy.com was taken). I haven’t gotten it set up quite yet, but feel free to contribute comments. In the meantime, I’m posting this ad for Bill de Blasio who is running for mayor of New York City. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, and I went through the Radcliffe Publishing program together back in the day. The ad features their son, Dante.
And speaking of mayoral races and old friends, Charlotte Golar Richie is running for mayor of Boston. I remember when she launched her first campaign for Massachusetts state representative. She’s been a dogged advocate for Boston and its residents for more than two decades. Sadly, as I was writing this, I learned that Charlotte’s father, Simeon Golar, a former New York State Supreme Court judge, from whom she learned many early lessons about politics, died yesterday. May he rest in peace.
One evening, while on his way home from service at an Episcopal church in downtown Pittsburgh, my father’s Parkinson’s ravaged body betrayed him and he took a spill. I can still feel my proud parents’ defeat when they returned home from the precinct. The police had assumed that this black man was a drunk.
When I was living in New York, I got home safely one evening after wading though the tenuous streets of my Washington Heights neighborhood only to be confronted by one of my white male neighbors who stopped me at the exterior door to my own apartment building and insisted that I prove to him that I lived there. Intimidated and humiliated, I handed over my keys. My blood still boils more than 30 years later.
A dozen years ago, I was with friends listening to a summer jazz concert with friends at a local shopping center. Our children, then about 7 or 8 years old, repaired to the nearby Disney Store while we took in the music. The kids returned a bit later with news that they were told they couldn’t play in the store unless they were making a purchase. My daughter confided later that she, the only black child in the trio, was the one who was singled out for reprimand and asked to leave.
Living under suspicion is part and parcel of being black in America. Some of us are lucky enough to have lived to tell these tales. Countless others, like so many black and brown men in New York City, are subjected to government-sanctioned harassment by the police. Sometimes, as in the cases of Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin, they are shot dead by those officers or by self-appointed vigilantes.
May Trayvon and Oscar rest in peace. For those of us who still have a voice, there is no rest.
The words of Ella’s Song say it best: “Until the killing of black men — black mother’s sons – is as important as the killing of all men – all mother’s sons . . .