What an odd lot we were, the Lower Eastsiders who boarded a chartered train for Washington on August 28, 1963 … fifty years ago next Wednesday.
First, there were the grandmothers with the food: Fay Lucia, a blonded Italian lady in her 50s from the projects, who brought a huge lasagna; and Nicolasa Benitez, the Puerto Rican firebrand of Hester Street, with a cargo of empanadas. There was Nicolasa’s gorgeous granddaughter, Aura, whose presence perhaps determined mine, except of course she spoke no English and I no Spanish.
There was a conservative rabbi from the big shul on East Broadway who wore a small straw fedora on the back of his head. There was our token black Republican, (who voted for Eisenhower, but not Nixon), and New Englander Peter Stanford and his Italian-American wife. There was someone who had a portrait of the man who invented Esperanto on her living room wall. Then there was me, a college junior. We all lived in the Five Points barrio under the Manhattan Bridge that was once turf to the old Gangs of New York.
We called ourselves Reform Democrats. To the Democratic regulars, we were outsiders trying to steal patronage. Actually we were discontents out to make America a fairer place. And so somehow we, a majority non-black liberal group, found ourselves rattling off to Washington to march for civil rights fifty years ago … simply because going seemed the right thing to do.
It was the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. But Jim Crow still reigned. Non-violent protest had been met by violence, arson, fire hoses, incarceration and murder all over the South. The Kennedy administration had broken its promises to move the Civil Rights agenda. The Democratic Party was shackled by its deeply racist Dixie caucus and its sympathizers throughout White America. It was a time when one prominent LA jurist proclaimed that blacks weren’t ready for the rights they’d been denied since the Declaration of Independence, when conservative Republicans marched in ideological lockstep with the Klan.
And when major newspapers editorialized that blacks could only wait patiently for the justice that would never come in their lifetimes. It was a time, in short, for a mass affirmation of justice that America could not ignore.
Civil Rights pioneers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin had been planning the march since December. It’s important to remember now that this was a march for both jobs and freedom. Many activists wanted civil disobedience, mass arrests, perhaps, to show the desperation faced by America’s black population. But the leaders declared for peace. Malcolm X called it the Farce on Washington. Many predicted a city-wide riot.
Some wanted an all-black march. But in the end, blacks and whites -- and some browns, who weren’t counted then -- marched together, in harmonic accord with Dr. King’s most famous speech. The organization was rigorous but unobtrusive. A 1963 state of the art sound system brought us King’s “I have a dream” in perfect clarity from the distant memorial, as we sat perhaps half a mile away. Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson sang, and so did Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Young firebrand John Lewis forthrightly demanded overdue action, but most of the words were peaceful.
A quarter of a million of us sat down there by the reflecting pool that day, and heard the words of justice, many of us not noticing that no women were speaking from the Freedom platform. Then we got up and walked to the station and went home. I’m not sure if any of us noticed that our lives had changed, but they had. So had America.
The next year, following the torment of a presidential assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 … Whose voting rights provisions, thanks to our Supreme Court, we find ourselves fighting for once again, 49 years later.
Meanwhile, about those jobs…