AN IMPOSSIBLE DREAM?
A SCOT IN WASHINGTON D.C., 28 AUGUST 1963
Fifty years ago on a very hot day at the end of August I was in Washington for the greatest civil rights demonstration in American history. Having recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh, I had been travelling the highways of the USA for several weeks, courtesy of the wonderful ‘$99 for 99 Days’ Greyhound Bus Pass.
Youthful curiosity, stimulated by a diet of Time and Newsweek magazines, had sent me to the Deep South where I encountered racism at its most bewildering. Racial murders in Mississippi, ‘Whites Only’ toilets and drinking fountains, and the aggressively defensive attitudes adopted by many, but not all, white Southerners suggested that something was rotten in at least some of the states of the Union.
All was not gloom and doom however. It was also a time when people dared to hope, ‘a time for greatness’, as John F. Kennedy’s carefully orchestrated Presidential bandwagon had so boldly trumpeted in 1960. It was certainly for me a time when it was glorious to be young and on the move in what seemed to be the most exciting country in the world.
So here I was on that momentous day, a very interested observer among the thousands peacefully demanding the integration of public schools, fair employment practices and the implementation of the President’s civil rights package.
The early morning mist was still burning off as I made my way to the Washington Monument from where the March was scheduled to begin. The actual distance to be covered was small, less than a mile from the Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. However, for most of the participants it would turn into a spiritual marathon by the end of the day.
As I walked over the dew-laden grass I became aware of the presence of large numbers of police, deployed in response to fears that there would be attempts at violent disruption from various points of the political compass. According to later news reports, there were over 6000 police on duty plus 4000 Marines waiting as helicopter back-up across the Potomac River. Though their presence was undoubtedly useful in discouraging potential troublemakers, for controlling the marchers they were surplus to requirements. The only incident that could be remotely considered dangerous occurred when George Lincoln Rockwell and about fifty members of his American Nazi Party attempted to exercise their constitutional right to parade. In the event, expediency overcame democracy. The police blocked their way and the ersatz fuhrer and his followers were forced into ignominious retreat.
The organisers had done a magnificent job to ensure that their event would go off peacefully. Fliers were issued prior to the March instructing participants to behave with dignity and use common sense – plenty water, comfortable footwear and definitely no booze. No problems there, especially with the last piece of advice. The capital’s liquor stores had all been closed, just in case.
At the green and white marquee which served as the organisers’ HQ there were a few worried faces by mid-morning. Only a relative handful of would-be marchers had arrived. The last thing they needed was a humiliating fiasco. They needn’t have worried. Though they (and I!) didn’t know it then in those pre-mobile (cell phone) days, all the railroads and highways leading to Washington were clogged with the ‘Freedom Specials’ bringing in over a quarter of a million supporters, twenty percent of whom were white. For the first time in my life I was a member of a minority group.
By 11.30, the scheduled start time, the March still hadn’t kicked off as the leaders were still closeted with their Congressmen at the Capitol. With more and more people assembling it became imperative for proceedings to begin and so, of its own volition, the great multitude began to move up the Mall towards the Lincoln Memorial. Gradually I became aware that the only sounds that I was hearing were the murmur of subdued voices and the shuffling of thousands of feet. No bands, no shouted demands and no razzmatazz. Just dignity.
The sheer volume of humanity was dictating a snail’s pace and the August heat inevitably began to take its toll. In one of those little cameos which I’m sure would be repeated many times during the day, complete strangers helped each other. A white girl alongside me began to look decidedly frail and so I got her out of the column and over to the shade of the trees which lined the route. In response a black family also broke ranks to comfort her with water and kind words. Once she’d recovered we returned to the mainstream, determined to be there at the finish of the march. We were, but our finish was far back from where we and no doubt all the other marchers had hoped they’d end up. Due to the huge numbers of participants it became obvious that we wouldn’t get anywhere near the Lincoln Memorial itself. However all was not lost. We were by now in the shade of the trees once more, a blessed relief. Loudspeakers on tall gantries meant that we’d be able to hear what was said – and sung. And by putting together their words and songs with the distant figures we could identify who was who on the steps of the distant Memorial. What mattered was that we were there.
We wouldn’t be disappointed. Many stars from the world of entertainment had come to town, eager to be a part of what many sensed might be a day which would go down in history. Naturally most were black but white artistes were also there to bear witness to the significance of the occasion and to show solidarity with those in trouble.
In 1963, in pre-Beatles America, the popularity of folk music was at its peak. Many of the folkies, particularly Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, were closely identified with the civil rights movement thereby involving many young Americans who might otherwise have remained a-political. The times, quite literally, were a-changing.
First Bob Dylan fired his personal broadside against Southern repression with ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’. Then it was up to Baez and PP&M to deliver what many of the crowd wanted to hear most, the anthems of the Freedom Riders, ‘We Shall Overcome' and ‘If I Had A Hammer’. Their closing number, Bob Dylan’s new composition, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, was perfect, asking everyone there on the day and in homes across the land, questions that had for far too long been left unanswered, most pertinently -
“How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?”
As the time for the final address approached, it was left to the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, to define what the day was really about with her blood-stirring rendition of the spiritual ‘I’ve been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned’.
Mahalia was going to be a hard act to follow but one person there that day was up to the challenge. From where we were, we sensed as much as saw Martin Luther King approach the podium. The crowd roared as their champion entered the ring and then fell silent as he began to speak.
Low key at first, Dr King read from his notes. Then he laid aside his papers and began to do what he did best – preach. Drawing on his experience and the memories garnered from thousands of sermons in hundreds of black churches, the King came and spoke and conquered. And when he reached the magnificent, rolling climax,
“Free at last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
everyone, black and white, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, American and Scot, knew that they had just been freed as well.
None of us could have guessed that within five years Martin Luther King would join Abraham, John and Bobby in the ranks of those who fell victim to the bullets of mad, bad men for standing up for the decent things in life.
Was his dream to be shattered like his body?
Nearly - but not quite.
Just as none of us in Washington in August, 1963, foresaw the assassinations, though many feared them, equally nobody would have dared to hope that only fifty years later Barack Obama would be placing his hand on the Bibles of President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King to swear the Presidential Oath at his Second Inauguration.
The Freedom March didn’t stop at the Lincoln Memorial.
It continued for another half century until it reached the White House.
I’m grateful to have been around to follow the journey.