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.
As a woman who advocates for freedom and equality, particularly for women of color, I wanted to be present and accounted for. I wanted to add myself to the multitude of those who continue to fight and march and stand up for the rights and freedoms of all people. We’ve come quite far in this country, there’s no denying that. We also can’t deny that we have a long way to go. Recent attacks on women’s reproductive rights, the Supreme Court ruling regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965, rising unemployment rates that disparately impact people of color, the disparities in marriage equality, and several other issues continue to limit the rights and freedoms of too many American citizens.
We need more than speeches and regurgitated rhetoric. We need action. We need people to stand up and be accounted for. We need more loud voices challenging our local elected officials to enact legislation that protects us all and affords us all the rights to liberty and the freedom to pursue happiness. We need to to reject apathy and embrace action. Our children are relying on us and that is why I traveled 10 hours round-trip to attend the March on Washington. I want my son to know that I stood up for him and his peers when I was called to do so. I can only pray that 50 years from now, he won’t have to continue the fight that we would have hoped to win.
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