Godfrey: Eyewitness to history urges a new discussion about race
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This Wednesday marks 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
I was there, half out of guilt and half out of the conviction that something was very wrong with America.
I was teaching at a Catholic college near Boston in 1963, and had mouthed many liberal platitudes about racial injustice to my classes that cost me nothing. Impulsively I decided to "put my money where my mouth was" and signed my name to the list for the bus from Boston to Washington. I nearly reneged, being scared, but my wife encouraged me. So off I went, leaving at 9:00 in the evening of the 27th with a busload of strangers, many of whom knew each other from established civil rights organizations.
We kept awake singing freedom songs -- "This Little Light of Mine," "We Shall Not Be Moved," "We Shall Overcome," and others I no longer can remember. I dropped off to sleep sometime after 1 a.m., and awakened as the bus stopped in Maryland for us to clean up and have breakfast. March organizers were there to give us instructions.
The event was superbly organized down to the smallest detail (we were instructed to avoid mayonnaise on our sandwiches, as it could spoil in the heat). The march itself, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, took about 40 minutes. And then the speeches began.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech was the high point, of course, and over time it has become as famous and as important as the Gettysburg Address. But other speeches were equally moving. A. Philip Randolph, the old warrior and union organizer; Roy Wilkins, secretary of the NAACP; John Lewis -- now a congressman, then the head of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee); and others prepared the way for King. The national anthem was led by Marian Anderson, and Mahalia Jackson also sang.
There was a respectful silence throughout, and I felt an inner calm, as if I were in church and had to hang on to every word. The mood was peaceful. I heard no angry words from either the podium or the audience.
There was a scattering of white folks in the crowd, many informally dressed (I was not), in contrast to the African-Americans for whom this was not a casual event but a religious experience. Most wore Sunday best, some older folks with out-of-style clothing, shiny from years of care and wear.
The marchers came a long way -- from Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. This was their show, and in a sense, they were the hosts, glad for the support of others who also came in peace. An aura of brotherhood and friendship prevailed. I found myself greeted warmly by perfect strangers.
Hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Americans came and left without disturbance of any kind. Some newspapers, especially in the South, predicted violence. There was none. Some radio commentators we heard on the bus returning home suggested that it was only the police presence that kept things under control. The participants knew better. The message to the nation was that injustice and inequality in America needed to be addressed, and that those affected preferred to use peaceful means to secure their objective.
What followed later was not so nice -- the murder of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., the fulminations of many Southern legislators, and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and King -- but the Civil Rights Act was passed the year after the march because a president from the South realized that the time had come.
America has changed in 50 years, at least outwardly. No one on that day in 1963 would have dreamed than an African-American person could be elected president. Overt racism is less a factor now, yet the president, a centrist, is thwarted -- and criticized as a socialist intent on destroying freedom. Many conservatives from the South are determined to negate him and his legacy, but do not openly admit that they oppose him because of his race. The recent Trayvon Martin case and the reactions to the verdict, and the finding of a judge about the application of stop-and-frisk tactics in New York City, show that racism is still a fact of life, and not only in the South.
Fifty years later, it is time to reopen the discussion about race -- especially the unexpressed and sublimated feelings of a large portion of the American people. Racism of any sort is a cancer that can undermine the nation's unity, and the first step in combating it is to admit that it exists.
Aaron W. Godfrey is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of European Languages at Stony Brook University.