Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Enduring Dream

I was sitting on the ground in the very hot sun when I watched and listened to the speeches and the songs at the March on Washington in 1963.  I listened to at least parts of the speeches and songs at the 50th anniversary commemoration in front of the Lincoln Memorial literally in my rocking chair, as I accessed the C-Span replay on my laptop.  Nothing after the comma in the preceding sentence would have made any sense at all in 1963.

Some of the words were stirring, some provocative.  But the only real speech that came close to measuring up to that day was President Obama's.  I was proud to hear him single out "those white students who put themselves in harm’s way, even though they didn't have to."  But mostly he praised those who deserved it the most--the African Americans who daily faced personal and institutionalized bigotry, who had lately faced mobs, police dogs, beatings, fire-bombs, white faces contorted with violent hate.   "They were seamstresses and steelworkers, students and teachers, maids and Pullman porters."

It was an important day and a unique experience for me, and I worked hard to write well about it in retrospect.  For the record, my remembrance was published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the Arcata Eye--though of course my favorite version is right here, a couple of posts ago. The PG played it at the top of the editorial page I'm told, and led to a radio interview with a public radio station.  The interview didn't really add anything, because I'd said what I had to say the best way I could in what I wrote.  And I was beginning to feel strange about drawing attention to myself, when my participation was so insignificant.  But it is one of the most important historical events I was part off--probably the most important. In an interview later in the day, President Obama would say of the original March "I think that day is as important a day as any in our history."

He made the case then and earlier in his speech for why that is so.  It's because ordinary people came together and changed things.  Not just in providing impetus for civil rights legislation that ended segregation enforced by law, or even only on behalf of African Americans.  Martin Luther King's speech made the point that until all were free in America, no one was free.  President Obama noted in his speech:

"   And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, a Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, a Voting Rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. (Applause.) Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed. (Applause.)

Because they marched, America became more free and more fair -- not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability. America changed for you and for me. and the entire world drew strength from that example, whether the young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid."

Much of President Obama's speech related his ongoing theme of changing the downward plunge of incomes for the non-wealthy few to the goals of the March--which after all was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

He captured the feeling of that day when he talked about the spirit there of determination, compassion, empathy and courage, and how the March was all about imagining a better future.

"But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago." 

"That’s where courage comes from -- when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from. 

And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on Earth for every person.  With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit, and prepares them for the world that awaits them. 

With that courage, we can feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise.

America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we’ll get back up. That’s how a movement happens. That’s how history bends. That's how when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we’re marching. 

There’s a reason why so many who marched that day, and in the days to come, were young -- for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream differently, to imagine something better."

Update: A few links I forgot: former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau on the March,             expostfactoid's grudging approval of President Obama's speech, and what's still the best piece on the March in the context of the Civil Rights movement I've seen on the web, by the great Louis Menand at the New Yorker.

Before leaving thoughts of the March behind for now, I must mention the great American novel The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers which revolves around the March, and certainly the questions of race in American life.  The March scenes are haunting and magical, and though certain events are fabulous in the original sense, some are based on little known aspects of the day. If I were teaching a course on the Great American Novel I would add to the justly selected standards Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby two contemporary novels: Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day and Powers' The Time Of Our Singing.

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