I went to the March on Washington on a bus from Connecticut with my mother and sister. My father wanted to be with us but had to watch on tv from Connecticut because he was recovering from a heart attack. An amazing family outting.
As our bus speeded towards the capital, we saw hundreds of other buses flowing in from New England, then New York, Pennsylvania. Every highway stop was filled with more buses. As we came into D.C., very very poor people were lined along the sidewalks to watch the incoming buses – we called out for them to join us. And when the bus stopped, I realized the gathering would be massive – I later went to the largest demonstration in DC against the Viet Nam war – the govt counted that at 400,000 – but the size of March on Washington was two or three times larger, no matter what the counters said at the time. Before the time for the march towards the Lincoln Monument came, we found ourselves already moving forward, no signal, just flowing. I heard later that the leaders of the march had to run to catch up to the front of the line. We became an oceanic wave of Americans of all backgrounds from all over the country joining together and flowing towards the Lincoln Memorial for first class citizenship and equal opportunities for all citizens. At one point someone on stage asked everyone around the reflecting pool to the podiums to be quiet and asked the people hidden from view by park trees to call out. The visible part of us was already huge – but the sound from the park under the trees, so far back from the podium, was loud, strong and equally huge.
I slowly moved closer to the podium past many people with United Auto Workers banners. At one point I found myself with a large group of young teens from some urban school somewhere in the country where life is tough. They started to react to me as if I were the enemy. Then they started realizing I, a white girl, was with them and we cheered each other on. I passed old white couples who seemed to have come straight from church and many other whites of all ages and backgrounds. Clearly impoverished black workers who had somehow found a way to the march. Asians. Native Americans. Latinos. People had been afraid of violence – every face showed hope and love for America’s dream of equal opportunity for every individual regardless of all the differences in the magnificent diversity of our country.
After the march, it took two more years and many deaths and imprisonments just to get a law saying all citizens had the right to vote – the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court just gutted without any apparent awareness of the new more subtle ways to restrict the vote in districts where people might vote Democratic … and with ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] creating laws to restrict fairness in so many areas from Stand Your Ground, through redistricting to give unfair levels of representation, to Wisconsin’s attempts to disempower unions – laws for states written by industries with a stake in de-regulation and privatization for states and funding election campaigns of state politicians who promise to pass those laws in their State House/Senate. Sorry for the Sunday rant but this “anniversary” can remind us not just that there is a lot more to do but that there is a lot being undone …. Shall we meet again in the spring of 2014 to honor the memory of King’s assassination while organizing his Poor People’s Campaign?
The spring before the march on Washington, I had taken my college spring vacation in Fayette County, Tennessee, to help lay bricks for the foundation of a community center. The CBS TV report on the arrests of people praying on the courthouse steps of Albany, Georgia, had made me aware of what was happening. Then a white Quaker, Virgie Hortenstine, from Ohio arrived at my college with the tall dark lay-preacher, Rev. June Dowdy (a man from Fayette and Haywood Counties) who told us that when sharecroppers registered to vote, they were evicted, doubled up in the homes of former slaves who had kept the land given to them during Reconstruction after the Civil War. And when those homes filled up and there were still hundreds being evicted, tents were put up to house them.
“Tent City” drew the world press (google “Tent City Fayette County TN”, or or go to: memphis.edu/benhooks/, a research center dedicated to advancing the understanding and pursuing the goals of the American civil rights movement) … but then the world press moved on to more “exciting” events like fire hoses being sprayed at demonstrators, police dogs attacking them, assassinations of Viola Liuzzo and the black young man she gave a ride to after a voting rights organizing meeting (and got shot, with him, for her kindness), Medgar Evers, two New Yorkers Schwerner and Goodman and their black Mississippi co-worker Chaney and so many of the nameless shot and lynched. The people of Fayette and Haywood Counties included a high percent of African Americans because during the Civil War, many plantation owners moved their slaves to this rural area. Some, including John McFerren and Hartman Jamison, fought for democracy in WWII – now they wanted the right to vote at home in America.
Rev. June Dowdy told us students to “Put your body where your mouth is” and I signed up to go during spring vacation plus a few days. As we gathered each morning in Somerville, TN, we could see sunlight sparkling on the gun pointed at us from a window of a shack. We were told it was manned by the Klan, doing the bidding of the wealthier members of the White Citizens Council who wanted to keep their hands clean and use the poor whites as their attack dogs. I met incredibly courageous people – sharecroppers who were dirt poor, rented shacks to farm the land and risked everything to try to become “first class citizens” despite Southern Jim Crow laws making them very second-class. They kept registering even when they knew the White Citizens Council would evict them from their homes because they dared register to vote and they would have no way to support or shelter themselves and their families. I also met the leaders who galvanized the courage: John and Viola McFerren, Square Morman and others.
Submitted: August 4, 2013