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In their footsteps

I WASN'T yet born when the original March on Washington drew 250,000 people to the Mall in 1963, seeking jobs and racial equality.

But like so many African-Americans, I grew up with a special appreciation of this seminal event, grasped early on its historic gravity for our nation, and the world.

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So on Saturday, I hopped a train to Washington for the 40th anniversary of the march.

It's hard to describe my mood that day, my exact feelings, only that an inexplicable stirring in my soul drew me. I knew I had to be there.

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I wanted to see the newly unveiled engraving marking the spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I wanted to pay homage to Dr. King and the countless civil rights martyrs who gave their lives. And I wanted to thank the many aging warriors whose freedom struggles paved the way for my generation of 30-somethings and others to be living beneficiaries of the dream.

It's a curious thing, but many African-Americans can't ever recall anyone specifically explaining what the dream meant.

Yet for me, there's always been this sense, a near-intrinsic realization, really, of its manifestations both personally and in the broader community.

Hard work, education, achievement and dignity are hallmarks. So are unspoken but established codes centered around concepts of racial pride. Such as holding one's head high, without looking down on others. Not doing things that might dishonor African-Americans, thereby sullying the dream.

My parents took pains to instill values in accord with Dr. King's vision of a racially, socially and morally just America.

In my middle-class household, we lived the dream.

There were books whose pages lauded George Washington as well as George Washington Carver. Good Housekeeping and Ebony magazines shared the coffee table.

My dolls were not only blue-eyed blondes but also brunettes with brown skin resembling my own. The radio and stereo played Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, James Brown and the Carpenters. For me, all of this was normal.

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It never dawned on me that attending an integrated parochial school was not the standard. Or that my fellow classmates shouldn't be Irish and Italian or Asian and Hispanic. It was expected that I would proceed to college.

Finally, there was always the blessing and burden to strive for excellence because, after all, the ancestors had facilitated the opportunities we reaped not by birthright but through their blood, sweat and tears.

For me, the march represented all these things, and more.

The anniversary gathering Saturday was a day in which I relished meeting diverse individuals and groups from across this great land and every corner of the globe. People seemed grateful, as I was, simply to be there, and to acknowledge how far America has come, and what we must do to go further.

I marveled at the people who had marched all the way from Mississippi; noted Arab-Americans carrying peace signs, and young Liberian women holding graphic posters of child-soldiers and civil war victims.

I saw white teens in NAACP T-shirts toting "Stop Racism Now" signs; American Indian activists; and a lively parade of gay, lesbian and transgender marchers proudly carrying a rainbow flag. I chatted with pro-military and anti-war forces and advocates for the poor, and met students, seniors, black sorority and fraternity members and representatives of nearly every cause imaginable. I listened attentively to speech after speech, from the elegant Coretta Scott King, to the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, to a new wave of young civil rights denizens with rhetoric from fiery militancy to white dove pacifism.

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It was a heady day, occasionally overwhelming. As I sat there in the hot sun, my umbrella shielding a grandmother who attended the original march and who'd brought her 8-year-old grandbaby, I pondered the implications of what it all meant.

Can African-Americans still claim sole ownership of the "dream"? Is the latter-day version diluted by so many seemingly disparate messages?

Have others borrowed the cause out of respect for what the civil rights movement accomplished, or mostly to further their own agendas?

I fretted over the relatively sparse turnout (several thousand compared to a quarter-million in 1963 and 1983). Was this a sign of apathy? Have hard-fought gains and material possessions made folks too comfortable?

From a national perspective, I wondered: Has the passage of time lulled the country to sleep? Or worse, have our multicultural gains blinded us to the very real problems that still confront us regarding matters of race? Or should we be moving away from issues of race - focusing instead on our common humanity?

I am not able to answer these questions - nor, it seems, is our nation. But I pray it won't take another 40 years and a monumental march for us to figure out the answers.

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Donna M. Owens is a journalist who lives in Baltimore.


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