On the night of Aug. 27, 1963, I boarded a bus in Boston for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The passengers — two-thirds African American and one-third white — were mostly strangers to one another.
I, a white Harvard graduate student in history, sat next to Henry Armstrong, a 50-year-old black building contractor.
Though we would spend the next day in the hot sun of Washington, we were each dressed in a coat and tie — determined to give the lie to those who declared that a trouble-making rabble was descending on the nation's capital.
At that time, in the 11 states of the old Confederacy, there were hundreds of counties, some majority black, where few if any blacks could vote.
And in the Boston from which we departed, discrimination was an everyday fact of life. As a volunteer in Boston's chapter of Congress of Racial Equality, I learned that among Boston's four largest banks, every single teller was white. Virtually the only "qualified" black employees were custodians. Not a single trash collector for the city of Boston was black: Irish American and Italian American contractors controlled the work and hired their own.
During the long nighttime ride, the bus was quiet. But when dawn broke, a young woman led in singing songs like "This Little Light of Mine" and the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome." Around 7 a.m. we stopped at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Baltimore, where church ladies treated us to a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, sausage and coffee. And on we went, arriving at the Washington Monument in the late morning.
I stationed myself below the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The first speaker I remember was John Lewis, now a congressman but then a 23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was truly a hero, a person who risked his life on behalf of justice. Later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would give his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech.
Before dark, we reassembled to return to Boston. The press reported more than 250,000 marchers, but everything had gone smoothly. There were no confrontations, and the police and demonstrators were all on their best behavior.
Henry Armstrong and I compared notes. I realized the Congress of Racial Equality might help black employment in Boston by urging businesses to hire contractors like Armstrong. He agreed to help start a list of reliable contractors that CORE could promote. It was a modest effort — but it moved in the right direction.
When we arrived back in Boston in the wee hours, exhaustion was the dominant mood. Yet we believed something important had happened. We sensed that the force of justice was irresistible. The day's message — that wholesale violations of Americans' rights must end — was not just inspiring; it was accurate.
Soon President Lyndon B. Johnson would use his political gifts to outlaw segregation through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and protect voting rights by law in 1965.
By arousing the consciences of Northern voters, and reminding Congress that Americans cared, the March on Washington was a step toward those laws.
I AM GOING BACK
It seemed as if the civil rights revolution of the 1960s would fulfill the promise of equal voting rights.
But today, the question is open. This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the most important section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and many states, most recently North Carolina, have been moving to restrict the right to vote.
Before 1965 poll taxes, grandfather clauses (you were eligible to vote if your grandfather was eligible to vote) and arbitrary literacy tests blocked minority voters. Today, new barriers to registration and new laws close voting places where minorities live; they "tax" voters by requiring them to take time from work to vote. As a result, minority voters must often stand for hours to cast their ballots.
These new tactics are not the same as the old ones. But they are members of the same family, aimed at preventing people from voting because their votes challenge an establishment.
This Aug. 28, I plan to be back in Washington to renew the effort to move the United States closer to justice for all of its people.
Richard D. Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, emeritus, at the University of Connecticut. He is at work on "The Challenge of Equal Rights in the Early Republic," a book to be published by Yale University Press.