Marching to Reignite the Embers of Empathy
As I was turning 65 in the final year of Barak Obama’s first term as President of the United States, I found myself writing again, holding a camera with greater purpose, and joining protest marches with renewed vigor. One of those marches was the 50the anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. I was a little too young to attend the 1963 march, but for the 50th anniversary celebration, I marched alongside a slightly-older friend who had.
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought together 200,000 black and 60,000 white marchers to acknowledge what had been accomplished since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. At the same time, it presented a set of demands for accomplishing fuller racial equality, especially between blacks and the predominantly white culture. It was the first U.S. march to be broadcast live on television and radio. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech is what most people associate with the 1963 March. Some are more likely to remember Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Lena Horne, and Peter Paul and Mary. Musically, that march placed black blues and emerging white folk on stage side-by-side. Author James Baldwin wasn’t allowed to speak out of fear his words would be to inflammatory.
Fifty years later, to regale the March on Washington for its 50th anniversary, I simply had to go. I’d been living in the Washington, DC area for 48 years so getting there was easy. Still, I didn’t want to go solo. A slightly-older friend who went as a college student in 1963 told me he was going. On August 28, 2013, we went together. He was a people magnet, chatting folks up as I tried to capture the experience with my camera. Early on, an interviewer recorded him singing “We Shall Overcome” in his haunting tenor voice. Overhearing him sing, a white woman our age became visibly overcome emotionally. Like the 1963 march, the 50th anniversary was largely a black/white affair. Many signs demanded more evidence of freedom and equality, but marchers smiled, laughed, danced, hugged—and used their cell phones to document the experience! During the march, it drizzled so lightly, most people didn’t even bother with umbrellas.
Joy was tempered when we approached the tall cyclone fences where we would be funneled through and subjected to metal detectors of person and possessions. Many had their bags opened. We felt impounded behind those cyclone fences. Crowd surges pressed us closer and closer together. Meantime, the rains finally came. Umbrellas interlaced to provide makeshift shelter. Two newly-arrived college exchange students from Germany said they told their host they were going to the march, and their host asked, “Why would you want to do such a thing?” to which they answered, “We can’t imagine anything more important to do.” People moved past the security check so slowly that, realistically, it would take 24 hours to process everyone.
The late August heat combined with the crowd density and the seemingly interminable wait caused physical distress for many older people, who left voluntarily or, after fainting, were carried to safety. A member of the security team—a young, red-headed woman—crossed the line and started handing out bottled water. Many marchers began voicing upset at the prospect of missing Oprah and favorite-son Obama, but few tempers flared. Finally, after three to four hours, the use of metal detectors was suspended, and they began wanding us by. Free at last! People moved at a trot to gather closer to the Lincoln Memorial, where MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, where Obama too would be speaking. Soon enough, Oprah spoke and then came President Obama.
Looking back, Obama said, “Because they marched, America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities. America changed for you and for me.”
He continued: “The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago.”
Connections form as we marched. Some marchers remembered the original 1963 march. Others had never marched before.
Home-made signs pronounced clear messages
Still unmet demands for union justice and equality
Friends marched together. Many marchers made new friends along the way.
The marching crowd often broke out into chants or song
A disproportionate number of young interviewers sought to gain insights from older marchers.
Young and old stood together as the wait to get through security began.
For mothers carrying children, the heat and the wait didn’t dampen wanting to participate fully.
Many fathers carrying children taught them about the importance of the march.
As we waited, crowd surges pressed us more closely together with little real forward movement.
The rains finally came as we shared interlaced umbrellas and stood almost in each other’s shoes.
Jubilation came at seeing the final speakers and being reminded to keep on marching.