Fifty years ago today, before 250,000 Americans who had marched to Washington for civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The speech is known by just about every adult American and celebrated by many, but much less vivid in our national memory and public conversation is the struggle that surrounded it.
Personally, it took me more than 46 years — my entire life, even though I have focused for more than two decades on racial and religious dynamics in America — to get it.
Two weeks ago I was standing on sacred ground — at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Montgomery, Alabama. It was in this city that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955 and that King, then 26 and a local pastor, led the 381-day bus boycott that produced the first grassroots victory of the civil rights movement. And it was at this terminal that white and black Freedom Riders in 1961, most of them college students, were beaten for trying to integrate interstate bus travel — seven years after segregation had been declared illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court. And it was at the Alabama State Capital in the same city in 1965 that King and civil rights advocates — on their third try, after initially being beaten by state troopers — completed their 54-mile march from Selma in support of the right to vote.
I had come east and south with three former University of Washington students, on a civil rights pilgrimage. We wanted to see places where heroes had stood, where profound courage had been demonstrated, where people in authority had relented only when compelled. We visited 15 states, starting at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and ending at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where King was killed in April 1968.
We won’t be the same.
Civil Rights pilgrims Jason Gilmore, David Domke, Tim Jones, Chuck Rowling (with hat). Credit: Jason Gilmore
Everywhere we went we learned about the power of words and imagery, about the unfathomable acts of courage enacted by both leaders who are in our history books and everyday citizens who aren’t, yet showed up every day. The march on Washington and King’s speech in August 1963 were inspiring, uplifting, mountaintop moments for the civil rights movement, but I now know how imperative it is to understand the bigger picture.
We saw the ways in which the racial epithets that were woven into U.S. life for centuries became manifested in disfiguring treatment by some whites of African Americans and others of color. We saw up close how black men were and weren’t allowed to communicate with white women in the South for generations, with tragic consequences for Emmett Till in 1955 in Mississippi. We saw how protestors made their case with signs and speeches, and, in the manner that won the day, through non-violent responses time and again — on buses, at lunch counters, on sidewalks, in parks, at voting booths, on high school and college campuses. Monuments and memorials spoke in their unique ways: via their placements, the words that had been carefully chosen for them by city officials, how well they are taken care of these days, and who has paid for them.
Along the way we utilized the 21st-century magic of 3G internet service to listen in our van to speeches, to news reports, to podcasts, to music that helped us to try to understand the civil rights clashes. We traveled down the highway in Alabama listening to Neil Young sing “Southern Man” and watched video clips of Bull Connor unleashing fire hoses and police dogs on children in Birmingham. We then stood outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that was bombed, with four girls killed, 18 days after the march on Washington — grasping the despair that one misses if all we remember is King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
We weren’t there then and we would never claim to fully know the thoughts of those who were, but we could feel the history. We were moved by it.
Civil Rights activist Sam Walker
And we talked and talked, to each other and to people we met. There was the married couple in Philadelphia, Mississippi whose families have run a grocery for decades and who were there when the Ku Klux Klan killed three civil rights workers in 1964. There was the Southern Poverty Law Center employee who quizzed us, like a tough no-nonsense prof, on what we had learned from our journey. There was Sam Walker (above), who spent three hours with us on a sweltering muggy day taking us through the key sites in Selma, including a stop at Brown A.M.E. Chapel, where the march commenced and where there now is a memorial with a “Roll Call of Freedom Fighters” who showed up day after day in the movement. Sam Walker’s name is on the monument.
And everywhere we saw the importance, the power, of mass media such as television, newspapers, and newsmagazines to tell their story — to render their experiences visible to a broader nation, to make known their cause and where people stood on it. Nine black high school students surrounded by federal troops made the cover of Time in 1957, under the headline “Paratroopers in Little Rock.” President John F. Kennedy was compelled to address civil rights after watching network coverage in Alabama. After the violent images from Selma, President Lyndon Johnson declared, in the language of the civil rights movement, “We shall overcome” — then he introduced the landmark Voting Rights Act.
Today we remember, honor, and celebrate the march on Washington and a historic speech by a great leader. This is right and good. Tomorrow I will put on the t-shirt I bought in Montgomery that shows the Selma marchers in 1965, carrying American flags and bathed in the setting sunlight, with the 2013 message: The march continues.