On Wednesday, August 28th, I volunteered as a marshal for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. The original march, which was officially named “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” took place on August 28, 1963 in Washington D.C. Over 250,000 people participated in the 1963 March, making it the largest demonstration to take place at the nation’s capital. The purpose of the Anniversary was to honor those who led the fight for equality and justice for all Americans and to renew our commitment to those goals.
I arrived the day before the event to attend a meeting for volunteer marshals. As more volunteers arrived, the room buzzed with anticipation of the upcoming March. Everyone had a pleasant expression and their positive energy was contagious. We shared why we wanted to volunteer, and like myself, the majority of us had loved ones who attended the march in 1963, but were no longer with us. Sharing our motivation fostered a sense of camaraderie and unity among our small group, and I knew this would be a life-changing experience.
The March kicked off at 8:30 a.m. the next morning with a moment of silence for the Veteran Marchers (those who were at the march in 1963) who were no longer with us. The Veteran Marchers who were present were paired with a student from Alabama State University and were presented with a commemorative sash. The marshals cleared a path from Georgetown Law School to Louisiana Avenue, and each veteran/student pair walked through the crowd to thunderous applause.
Behind the Veteran Marchers, tens of thousands of people carried signs, wheeled disabled participants, and sang songs from the original March. As we proceeded down Constitution Avenue N.W. toward the National Mall, we listened to the Veteran Marchers share stories and memories. Some were threatened and even fired from their jobs for attending the March, others returned to large, flaming crosses a few feet from their front door, and worse. A number of the Veteran Marchers were white, and they shared unique stories of the violence and intimidation they suffered for openly supporting the Civil Rights movement.
The National Mall marked the end of the March and my duties as a marshal. Still, I remained with the group of marshals and had an excellent view of the speakers at the Lincoln Memorial. While each speaker delivered a powerful message, speeches given by President Obama and Forrest Whitaker were particularly poignant. Forrest Whitaker urged us to celebrate the silent heroes from the Civil Rights movement, those who contributed to the fight for equality in their day to day lives.
As he spoke, I thought of my Grandfather, a man who was born black in North Carolina in 1913. With a grade school education, he served in WW2 in the Quartermaster Corps and along with his wife, raised two children who would earn college degrees and make a significant difference in their field of work. I thought of my Mother, born at the end of the Second World War in Philadelphia, PA. She attended integrated schools in Philadelphia, but expectations still weren’t high for black students. Teachers told my mother she should not waste time taking academic courses in school, since black students weren’t “college material.” Upon hearing this, my Grandmother, a factory worker at Whitman’s candy company and a laundress, marched to the school and registered my Mother for the academic track of courses. She went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Education and spent the next 40 years in the Camden, NJ public school system encouraging every child who wanted to learn. I thought of the white participants and supporters of the Civil Rights movement, and before that, white abolitionists who sacrificed their lives and risked their livelihood to improve life for all Americans. These are the silent heroes I honored that day.
President Obama gave us a call to action: “To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed, dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete…To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.” As I made my way home, his words replayed themselves in my mind. I participated in the March to simply honor my grandfather, but I came away with a renewed sense of purpose. While our predecessors indeed cleared the path to equality and freedom, it is up to us to keep the path clear.