Why I Went to the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

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Fifty years ago, hundreds of thousands of people gathered together in Washington, D.C. to march for jobs, and freedom. Planned primarily by A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the march was to be a culmination of a couple of days of protests and lobbying in response to the pervasive joblessness among Black Americans. Issues of employment discrimination, disparities in housing and education, and the lack of legislation affording Black people equal rights and protections were key rallying points of the protests that attracted people from all over. This week, 50 years after the original March on Washington, hundreds of thousands have been returning to the nation’s capitol to commemorate the golden anniversary of one of the most famous marches in history. I traveled there last Saturday because I, too, wanted to take part in the collective celebration of the impact the march had on all Americans.

I took my first class in African American History in 7th grade and knew then that I wanted to study the history of Black people in America. In high school, I took a class called “Malcolm and Martin” and I became enamored with the fighting spirit both men shared; they wanted nothing more than for Black people in America to be free, respected, and counted as equal human beings. I often imagined what it must have been like to be alive during that time, to attend their rallies and marches, and to experience the invigoration that comes with fighting for one’s freedom. I would go on to study numerous movements and key figures in college and beyond, and I have since paid particular interest to the roles of Black women in movements for freedom and civil rights.

This piece in the Washington Post recalls how women were virtually denied public recognition for their roles in organizing and planning related to the March of 1963. It also reminded us that women were not allowed to speak as principal speakers. There was a tribute to “Negro Women Fighters For Freedom”, but it was a late addition to the program and led by Rustin, a man. The women who were well-known activists in their own rights were asked to walk with the wives of the male speakers, who walked down one street segregated from the men who marched on another, which was indeed a snub. Despite their many contributions, women were still treated as second-class citizens, highlighting the silent, but reluctantly accepted sexism within the Civil Rights Movement.

Fifty years later, women have definitely been better represented at the memorial events. I first heard talk about a march, being organized by the National Action Network, shortly after George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. My heart was breaking and, as a mother of a Black son, I knew I couldn’t just sit by and do nothing. I attended a rally in New York City, also organized by NAN, and listened to Sybrina Fulton speak about how we need to fight for justice for our children and work on changing laws that allow people to shoot innocent people, especially our children. I decided, then, that I would be there, come hell or high water.

I traveled with a local chapter of the NAACP and though we experienced travel glitches, we made it safely to D.C. and I was simply amazed by how many people were there. There were literally hundreds of chartered buses lined up at RFK Stadium and there were several groups of people, each group wearing a signature T-Shirt representing their churches, community organizations, unions, etc. People were laughing, hugging, singing, and having a generally good time. People traveled in groups on the Metro to get close to the national mall, and there was a great sense of neighborly camaraderie, even among strangers. It was truly inspiring.

Having missed a number of the speeches (due to travel delays), I opted to walk with several others directly to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. There was a large crowd gathered there and I ran into a friend who was listening to King’s speech, so I joined him. We reflected for a few moments and I allowed myself a moment to imagine what it must have been like to be there, in that infamous moment when Dr. King declared that we were “free at last”. I looked around me and saw people of all races and ethnic backgrounds, men and women, children, LGBTQ people, just everyone was gathered peacefully.

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