March on Washington anniversary: A call to action

ESSAY - Whether you volunteer, mentor, donate money or do something else to help your brethren, now is the time to get to work. We don't have the luxury of another 50 years and a monumental march to make things right...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

I wasn’t alive when the 1963 March on Washington drew some 250,000 people to the National Mall on a quest for jobs and freedom. But like so many Americans, and particularly African-Americans, I grew up with knowledge of the historic event, and an appreciation of what that hot August day meant for racial equality in our country and the world.

So I knew I had to be in Washington, D.C. for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, this edition promoting ‘Freedom, Jobs, Peace and Social Justice.’

I wanted to revisit the Lincoln Memorial, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. I wanted to pay homage to Dr. King, Medgar Evers and the other Civil Rights martyrs who gave their lives. And I sought to thank the countless freedom fighters–some we know like Congressman John Lewis–and others who will never be singled out in history books or individually honored for their tremendous courage. Without them, Generation Xers like myself and the Millennials who’ve followed us would not be living beneficiaries of the dream.

What the ‘Dream’ means

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I realize that for many African -Americans of a certain age, there’s always been an intrinsic sense of what the dream means, and how it manifests in one’s life and the broader community.

My loving parents instilled early on that hard work, education and faith are key hallmarks of the dream. So are certain values and unspoken codes, such as holding one’s head up high, without looking down on others, and carrying oneself with dignity. You knew better than to act up in public, or do other things that might dishonor one’s people. To do so, might somehow sully the dream.

Finally, there was always the goal of striving for excellence, because the ancestors paved the way for our dreams. Every educational and financial opportunity, every peg on the social ladder that so many of us now consider our birthright, came about through someone’s blood, sweat and tears. While people of many different races have helped build these United States, God knows that black folks have paid a unique price for whatever version we happen to be living of the American dream.

For me, the march represented all these things and more.

Faces in the crowd

The anniversary gathering on Wednesday was a chance to mingle with a rainbow tribe of individuals and groups who hailed from America and beyond. Marchers came on foot, packed aboard yellow buses, in wheelchairs and leaning on canes. Some toted peace signs, or brandished banners representing nearly every cause imaginable, while plenty wore T-shirts or buttons with the hooded image of Trayvon Martin. The participants gazed at JumboTrons and heard speeches from the King family, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Jamie Foxx and the Rev. Al Sharpton, among others, messages filled with a mix of fiery militancy as well as peace and love.

As I chatted with attendees, many acknowledged how very far America has come, but stressed the collective work we must do to make further progress.

Edith Henderson, a 73-year-old Maryland resident attended the original march 50 years ago. This go-round she walked for miles to the Mall and stood in the intermittent rain to mark the day and “see my president.” Joann, a U.S. veteran originally from Philly, came with her sister Linda, and both expressed how proud and grateful they were simply to be there. Meanwhile Dorothy Mitchell, a feisty grandmother, wanted me to take ‘snaps’ of her, proof that she was part of the same auspicious occasion as President Barack Obama.

Honoring Dream — a logistical nightmare

It was a heady day, positive and uplifting. But the event wasn’t without its logistical challenges. As crowds tried to access the Lincoln Monument amid heightened security and magnetometer scans, throngs stood on the grassy lawn near the Washington Monument in long lines that seemed to have no clear cut beginning or end. Signage seemed in short supply, and in my opinion, more National Park Service personnel and police officers were needed to aid with crowd control. Sandwiched near a chain link fence that faced the World War II Memorial, I saw firsthand how the muggy heat and masses of people led to several crises, including a pregnant woman who fainted.

As the wait spanned several hours for many, the crowd grew increasingly restless. At one point a multiracial group of children and teenaged activists who’d traveled from Detroit began chanting loudly, “Open the gates! Let freedom ring!,” while vigorously shaking the fence. Lots of pushing and shoving commenced among the assembled, and for a few scary minutes there were genuine fears that someone might get crushed. Several elders tried to reason with the youngsters, explaining that while their frustrations were valid, mayhem on a day meant to celebrate Dr. King and the principles of non-violence was not. Calm finally prevailed.

More than four hours after my morning arrival, I made it through the checkpoint just in time to secure a spot near the Reflecting Pool, and hear President Obama deliver his speech.

The country’s first black commander in chief cited Frederick Douglass, saying  that “freedom is not given; it must be won, through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.”

Dream becomes call for action

As I stood there in the afternoon drizzle, alongside new friends of many races that I’d made along the way, I pondered the implications of what the anniversary meant.

I believe African-Americans need to reclaim the “dream,” not only out of respect for what the Civil Rights Movement accomplished, but to tackle some of the contemporary problems confronting the community—from high rates of black incarceration, to racial profiling and generational poverty.

I pray the passage of time hasn’t lulled African-Americans to sleep, a slumber in which our gains have blinded us to the improved, but still vexing, racial problems that confront us. Maybe one day our entire nation will unite and truly move away from having to talk about color, ethnicity and creed, and focus instead on our common humanity.

Whether you volunteer, mentor, donate money or do something else to help your brethren, now is the time to get to work. We don’t have the luxury of another 50 years and a monumental march to make things right.