My memories of August 28, 1963 have been tempered over the years. I was 10 years old. The minister of our church was very involved in the Civil Rights Movement and he, along with several church members, was actually present at the March on Washington. I remember taking great pride in that.

I think I remember watching the news that night. We were a Huntley/Brinkley family. In those years of black and white TV, and before Walter Cronkite became enshrined for his announcing Kennedy’s assassination and sending astronauts into space, most Americans got their news from Chet and David. Coverage was brief. Just a camera shot or two of thousands of people filling the space between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and a gathering of Black Leaders speaking to the crowd.

Living Side by Side in Two Different Worlds

Eleanor & Oliver Powell

Even though I grew up in the lily-white suburbs of Chicago, I was aware of the needs of Black people. Much of this awareness came on Sundays in sermons given by ministers, pastors, priests, and rabbis. Our Church was led by the Reverend Oliver Powell, who was a leader in the inter-denominational movement in the Greater Chicago Area. As part of an inter-denominational exchange, he encouraged church members to visit other churches where we were warmly welcomed. I vividly remember going to a Black church on the South Side of Chicago and being awed by the energy and enthusiasm of the church members when compared to the staid Protestant assembly that was my church.

Eleanor & Oliver Powell

Looking back on it now, it all seems so innocent. I think we were aware that ‘change was a comin’, but I am not sure we had a sense of what that change would mean. I had no real-world experience with poverty or injustice. It was something that was reported on the news and happened to other people. I did know it was something I should do something about, even it if were only marching with others to bring attention to the issue.

Social Activism and Grass-Roots Organizing

My mother was the social activist in our family. She was involved in the League of Women Voters and in the Community Fund and in many of our congregation’s service groups.

Awareness of inequality and a desire to help others who were experiencing injustice turned her into an envelope-stuffing, call-making organizer. And I was her helper.

Huntley and Brinkley shared news nightly about marches in the South. Then as folks organized in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities, coverage of this movement increased. People became aware of what was going on in their own cities and towns. Joining marches seemed to be the next logical step. So we took to gathering and walking and singing protest songs.

The Power of the Collective

There is something powerful about being part of group that shares a vision. Walking together in support of an ideal allows for bonding and connecting in ways that just don’t happen elsewhere. A sense of determination arises, bringing people out of themselves. Within the group, people act and say things that they would never find the courage to express otherwise.

I was shy as a child. But in those marches, I became a vocal leader and passionate activist. I felt empowered to confront authority. I raised my fist and my voice and experienced what I have come to value as true community; actions taken in service of all, to ensure a higher good.

The March on Washington

Summer in Washington, D.C. is notable for its heat and humidity. Amazingly, that late August day in 1963 had mild temperatures and low humidity. Still, as more and more people gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and then began to swell along the reflecting pool, the size of the crowd made it feel warmer.

Busses had made their way from all across the nation, bringing to Washington a cross-section of Americans who supported the notion of jobs and freedom for all. And, brought them all to a place that should be considered holy: the Lincoln Memorial. Still, just like Lincoln, 100 years previously when making his Gettysburg’s Address, few in attendance were aware that the words spoken that day by a Baptist Minister from Atlanta would become immortalized.

In the Interim

As a 10-year-old in 1963, I had no idea our country was on the precipice of social change. My teenage years that followed were framed by assassinations of political leaders, both black and white, as well as riots that burned parts of major cities to the ground. My activism turned from non-violence to anti-war. And all culminated, while I was in college, with the impeachment of a President after crusading journalists uncovered a break-in designed to undermine an election.

I sometimes wonder whether having lived through those times, it explains why I am not feeling more outrage at the current state of affairs. Perhaps I have become numb?  And then I listen to the soaring eloquence of Martin Luther King, Jr. And I am brought, once again, to tears.

Setbacks vs. Re-Sets

One of the things that aging offers is the opportunity to revisit past events after having acquired some additional life experience and if lucky, some wisdom. From the vantage point of 70 instead of 10, today I have a much deeper understanding of what risks were being taken by the likes of Roy Wilkins, John Lewis and James Farmer. I also have a deeper appreciation of the price paid by those in attendance in terms of sharing in a dream that is yet to be fulfilled.

It is difficult to watch gains made during the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement now being systematically torn apart by state and local legislators, as well as the Republican Party. What gives me hope is knowing that there was a time where people stood up to racism and inequity. What gives me hope is that there are those among us who not only participated in those social change movements, but who continue to inspire and motivate others in following in their footsteps.

We Cannot Walk Alone

Thousands of grade-school children have come to know about that day as a speech they have memorized. Just as I memorized the Gettysburg Address without fully understanding the depth of sacrifice made by soldiers and just how close our nation had come to dissolving, today’s children can recite the glorious phrases contained within “I Have a Dream” without comprehending what it was really like back then.

This, then, is the legacy of that day. Those of us who lived through these events and remember must share our memories. We must bring to life the experience of being in the presence of the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., and living through times of change.

King said, “… we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  We must join with him and retake that pledge and not allow ourselves to be satisfied.

One response to “I Didn’t Know I Was Living in Historic Times”

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    Brings back so many memories.
    And I retake the pledge, and continue to hope that justice flows like a river.

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