August 24, 2013 – Washington, DC – The 50th Anniversary for the March for Jobs and Justice. We made our way via Metro, my husband and I, my friend Julie – a white Unitarian, and my African-American friend Shelton and his 13 year old daughter, Jaya. Diverse in religion, race, class, we reflected the mass of people moving with us toward the Reflecting Pool to hear the speeches at the Lincoln Memorial before marching to the new Martin Luther King Memorial. It was a gorgeous day in Washington, and spirits were high. The merchandise being hawked as we made our way was probably quite different than 50 years ago – a black President’s face on a t-shirt would have been practically unimaginable. Flyers for all kinds of issues were everywhere, whether for workers’ rights, the great discrepancy between rich and poor, prison reform, etc. (20,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement at any one point in this country – sometimes for decades… Surely this is “cruel and unusual punishment!!!! Thank God there are some Americans of conscience actually taking up this issue.) My favorite banner noted that CEOs = $7000/hr – Teachers = $15/ hr = Absurd!
We arrived midday, in time to hear Rev Al Sharpton’s dynamic speech calling us to take up the unfinished work in this country in terms of race, jobs, and opportunity. Emmet Till’s cousin spoke, and I found myself explaining this historical vignette to Jaya. I felt moved as a white woman explaining the death of a young black man who whistled at a white woman in the years of the old Jim Crow to a 13 year old black girl only now starting to study this in her school.
Trayvon Martin’s mother also spoke, seemingly a voice not filled with hate but with encouragement for us to do better. The last speaker was Dr. King’s daughter admonishing us to take up her father’s work. Clearly, there is much more to do.
Missing for me was the music from the civil rights movement that has so moved and inspired generations of people. A cousin from Maine, a veteran of many marches, had been at the Reflecting Pool since early morning with her partner and said the only music they had heard was Tony Bennett singing 3 love songs. “It was surreal,” she said – “and disappointing.”
Overall, there was confusion about when and where to actually march, and people milled around, knowing we were somehow supposed to head to the King Memorial. But regardless of the seemingly poor organization, it felt important to be there and to be counted on such a momentous day.
The following Wednesday, I again made my way down to the Reflecting Pool with a different friend hoping to hear Presidents Obama, Clinton, and Carter speak on the exact anniversary of King’s iconic speech. (It had been noted in a Washington Post article the day before that none of the many reporters covering the 1963 march had mentioned this historic speech in any of the articles at that time!) This time it was overcast and rainy, but we were undeterred until we came upon the hour and a half wait at the one and only entrance to the event where people had to go through 5 (FIVE!!) metal detectors to get into the area. There were no “jumbotrons” so we could hear distant speeches, but not understand or see the speakers. This time we turned around and headed home to possibly hear the speeches on TV. Walking through the lovely parks in downtown DC, I noted the many black, homeless men sleeping on the park benches on this historic day.
One Other Afterthought…. Coming home from the Wednesday event on the Metro, we stood next to a young African-American woman checking her cell phone. She wore a scoop neck top, and both my friend and I noted the many cigarette burn scars on the part of her chest we could see. Was this possibly anything else, I wondered – but these were unmistaken. Horrible. Who would do this to a child? As a therapist trained in trauma, I often think of the transgenerational transmission of trauma and how it is so evident in our inner cities. And here is a child burned by whom? And who burned them before?