Fifty years today back in the mists of history, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech changed America, but it is anybody’s guess whether they produced something approximating King’s vision of “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” merely drove racism underground, or did something else entirely. A century may offer a clearer lens.
Here in our little part of the mosaic, where fear and loathing of a black president drives every political discussion, you would have to say that blacks and whites largely view those events and their progeny over the half century quite differently, and both with alienation: What else do they want from us?
The march and King’s epochal speech, the most electrifying in American history because of its eloquence and its global reach at the dawn of the television age, are celebrated again this week by declamations from current leaders and by endless columns and essays that do not do justice to the event.
King’s was the last of a litany of civil rights speeches that otherwise seemed perfunctory that day, especially given that hotspurs like James Baldwin were banned or had their remarks censored so as not to offend the Kennedy White House. (Robert F. Kennedy had sicced J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI on the march’s leaders a couple of months earlier after one or two of them had made fun of his defense of gradualism — his Irish forebears, he told them, had overcome discrimination without the government’s help.)
The speech and the march have always been credited with transforming the Kennedys and the enactment a year later of the Civil Rights Act and after another year the Voting Rights Act, the latter virtually legislated out of existence this summer by the Supreme Court.
More eloquent have been accounts of ordinary people who were in the multitude of 300,000 that engorged the mall and the federal parklands from the Potomac to the Capitol on that hot August 28, 1963. The country may not have been transformed, but they were. Some said they felt like a real human for the first time. An African-American woman from Alabama told about having an older white man in the moiling throng at the Reflecting Pool apologize profusely for stepping on her foot. She had never in her life experienced deference from a white person.
For the most inconsequential participant in the 300,000, a white South Arkansas man who took a vacation from his newspaper job at Little Rock to drive his Volkswagen coupe to Washington for the march, the events did not seem profoundly transformational, either then or in the fevered imaginations of his later years when he tried to cast himself in the translucent light of noble calling. But he could never recall to his satisfaction exactly why he went, whether to commit himself personally to the cause (as a reporter he had to maintain objectivity) or whether, like Forrest Gump, merely to place himself at the juncture of history.
That spring and summer, kids at Philander Smith College, joined by a few adults like Ozell Sutton, had tried to get lunch at Main Street lunch counters but met abuse by white customers and denial by the staff. He had covered one or two of those and had begun to reflect for the first time and more poignantly after the march on his own casual daily encounters with racial inequality as a white boy in the woods of Champagnolle Road. What ever happened, he wondered, to Dock, Mary, Sam, Haywood, Willie, Cato’s girls and all the rest who, unlike him, didn’t go to school because the county provided no school for them or at least no teachers? No demonstrations had called attention to the manifest injustices of their lives, and it had never occurred to him that it was any of his business to care.
He got to hear Litle Rock’s Daisy Bates’ brief words — she was the only woman who spoke at the memorial — but he was tramping back toward the hotel when King’s soaring voice stopped him in the shade of a tree off Constitution Avenue. He would recall being transfixed — the intense booming voice, the purple metaphors that flowed one after the other, filling every sentence with vivid images. (He had always struggled with metaphors.) It was the next morning, as he headed out of town with the souvenir Washington Post — it ignored King’s speech — on the seat beside him that he got the full brunt of King’s speech over the radio.
He thought he might have been present at history’s making, but nothing much seemed to change. Two weeks later, Gov. George C. Wallace said Alabama needed “a few first-class funerals” to stop integration so a bunch of Klansmen got together and bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church at Birmingham, the seat of a black voter-registration drive, killing four little girls. Downtown Little Rock businessmen that fall agreed to let blacks eat at the lunch counters, but it would be a couple of years before they agreed to hire a few black clerks. Arkansas’s delegation in Washington united against the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
King gradually turned from pariah to hero, even begrudgingly in the South. Now it is standard editorial fare — see the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and other papers — to use the great man’s speech (that part about the content of a person’s character) as a hammer against affirmative action, voting rights or any effort to correct social and economic inequities. They never heard the message.