With the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington approaching, I vividly remember that warm, humid daywhen I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial while Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed “I Have a Dream.”
I was not there as a crusader for civil rights but as a young, curious, white graduate student at the University of Virginia with the attitudes of an outside observer.
I grew up out West, where the number of Native Americans far outnumbered African Americans. Like the vast majority of the population who were white, I was certainly aware of segregation and the Jim Crow laws in my state. But because of the small numbers of blacks isolated on the “other side of town,” I experienced no day to day contact with them.
Instead I lived among middle-class people descended from self-sufficient pioneers. I went to school with the occasional Native American, but never an African-American. Thus it was as a daughter of the West that I went to Washington to simply see what would transpire on the day black and white Americans marched to fell the barricades of racism.
When I stepped out of Washington’s Union Station, I was struck more by the dignity of the multitude than its size. These were not revolutionaries but quiet, courteous men and women, black and white, come to seize the moment for themselves and their children.
By 10 a.m., I was in a crowd of roughly 250,000 people at the far end of the mall from the Lincoln Memorial. Over the next few hours, I advanced bit by bit through the crowd.
When the speeches began, I continued to move forward past individuals who shifted this way or that to let me through. By the time Peter, Paul and Mary came to the microphone, I stood on the step of the Lincoln Memorial that was perhaps 50 feet to the left of the podium.
My position was testament to the atmosphere that surrounded the entire day. Everyone was there as an equal. No one challenged the right of a young white woman from Oklahoma to be there. Instead I stood side by side with others, black and white, as King came to the microphone.
Even encased in my Western background, I was awed by this profound moment in American history. Just as my grandparents sought opportunity by loading up their children and possessions in a wagon and moving West, the descendants of slaves and the victims of Jim Crow were now rising up to declare the most powerful slogan I saw that day – “Segregation is Morally Wrong.” It was on that day that those seeking to break the chains of oppression and those who were there to support them seized the moral high ground of the national conscience.
Because my motivation for joining the march was curiosity, I have never felt that I have a right to claim that I was a part of the moment. I was still of the West. The irony is that I never went back West. Instead, I stayed in the South, migrating from Virginia to Georgia. I was living in Atlanta during the height of the civil rights movement and it was there that I emotionally committed to the struggle for social justice.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com