A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
5:30 a.m. That was the time we were told to meet the chartered bus at the pick up spot. Back then, it took a damn good reason to get this 22-year-old’s ass out of bed at such an ungodly hour.
It was 1963. I was living with my parents in Cedarhurst, a New York City suburb on the south shore of Long Island. I was two months out of college, my summer job was over and I was about to start graduate school to pursue a Master’s and Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
I’d heard there was going to be a demonstration on August 28th in Washington, DC -- officially called “The March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom.”
For me, participating in the March seemed a no-brainer. I’d grown up in a politically progressive home. My folks had been very active in various civil rights activities, including efforts to stop racial discrimination in housing. I remember watching TV news accounts of people my age risking life and limb traveling down South as freedom riders or engaging in lunch counter protests.
But, what had I done personally? Zero.
Although the organizers touted this to be a peaceful rally, I had read and heard reports that Ku Klux Klan sympathizers might stage counter-protests, raising the possibility of violence. But, hell, I reasoned, I was 22. Twenty-two, for God’s sake! What could happen to me?
I totally believed the March “probably” would be peaceful.
Sleepy-eyed, I managed to arrive on time, park my old Chevy and board the waiting bus. It was about two-thirds full
I noticed that most riders were White like me, reflecting the make up of the local population; and mostly males, ranging in age from a couple of chatterbox teenagers to a few older folks. Some older gentlemen had already dozed off. A couple wore ties and sport jackets. Overdressed, I thought, for a day of marching in the late summer heat and humidity.
At first, I didn’t spot anyone I knew. Then I saw Buddy Anderson, seated alone, scanning a magazine. He looked up and gestured for me to join him.
I was glad to be with Buddy, a forty-something African American insurance agent who had come to my house for years to talk with my folks about coverage. A slender chain smoker and dapper dresser, he always appeared affable and outgoing, never at a loss for words. I hoped he'd shorten the trip with stories and jokes. Buddy didn’t disappoint.
A while after we got on the New Jersey Turnpike, heading south to D.C., many of us wanted to use a rest room. Unfortunately, our borrowed school bus didn't have one. No problem, I thought. We’d just stop at one of numerous Howard Johnson restaurants on the way, right?
Wrong. I got the word from one of the other bladder-challenged passengers. We absolutely would not patronize any Howard Johnson restaurants along the way. Why? The answer was simple. In the South, at the time, Howard Johnson would not serve Negroes.
So, as we got off at Exit 7, feeling as if my bladder was about to burst, I found myself experiencing one additional sensation. Pride. Pride in my demonstration of solidarity with my Black brothers and sisters down south, supporting the fight for social justice and racial equality.
After driving a mile or so from the highway exit, our bus pulled into a dilapidated, two pump gas station. I will never forget the look on the attendant's face -- jaw dropped and wide-eyed -- as we descended from the bus and made a beeline for two filthy bathrooms (one each for men and women)at the rear of the station.
Many of us were wearing T-shirts with images of Martin Luther King’s face or words about racial and social justice. I knew that if this guy was not prejudiced before we arrived, he’d now make a hell of an easy recruit for the KKK. At least, we did buy gas before leaving.
On our way out, another bus headed to the March pulled in. Buddy and I laughed as we imagined buses passing a Howard Johnson and descending instead at this little station with wretched bathrooms.
We arrived in Washington around noon at the All Souls Unitarian Church, a little north of downtown, and one of several drop off points for the thousands of marchers coming to the city that hot Wednesday afternoon. I remember being immediately welcomed by smiling volunteers who provided snacks and water along with written information -- “our marching orders,” so to speak.
That church, I learned later, had a rich history of spearheading social and racial justice activities in Washington, which had often been described as a “Southern city.” Public schools there were segregated until the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision. Not far from the church was Children’s Hospital National Medical Center, where I was to work more than 25 years as a clinical psychologist. In earlier Jim Crow days, the hospital had separate wards for Black and White patients.
As we left the church to join other marchers, Buddy and I split up and agreed to reconnect at the bus after the March.
The crowd of marchers was diverse -- Black and White, young and old, single people, parents with children in strollers. Only a few carried signs, which were discouraged by the organizers. Many were smiling and laughing. It felt a lot like being in a big happy parade. If there were still any concerns about violence, that now seemed as likely as a sudden snowstorm.
Walking ahead of me was this tall African American man. When I say tall, I mean TALL! He had to be the tallest person I’d ever seen. I turned to a man walking beside me.
“Hey, you see that guy ahead? He’s so tall, he’s blocking my view. I can’t see anything past him.”
The fellow replied with a laugh. “Yeah, that’s Wilt Chamberlain.”
Wow! The legendary Wilt the Stilt, one of the greatest basketball players of all time was marching with us. Well, why not? Sure, it made sense that he’d be there. It’s just that I didn’t expect to see really “famous” people walking among us.
“Wow!” I repeated to the amusement of the man beside me.
Chamberlain, arguably, the best ever, was the only player in NBA history to score 100 points in a single game. He held the record for most 40 point games in a season, and one year averaged over 50 points a game. And here’s the most important fact in his storied career. He was actually marching a few feet ahead of me!
Our ranks swelled steadily as we passed through the city and the crowd was massive by the time we reached our final destination: the National Mall Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
No doubt you’ve seen the iconic pictures. Yes, it was something to behold. I stood on the north side of the area. We were packed together, roasting in the sweltering heat, as we listened to singers and speeches that seemed to go on and on. I was so far from the Memorial steps that I could barely see the performers.
I later learned that the entire sound system was sabotaged the day before the March. Who did it and how were unknown. A new system was put in place at the last minute after an urgent appeal from the city’s leading civil rights activist, Reverend Walter E. Fauntroy, to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Imagine, for a moment, how frustrating and disappointing it would have been for the tens of thousands in attendance if they couldn’t hear any of what was going on, no less bear witness to one of the most memorable speeches in American history.
Although I was impressed by King previously on television and radio, that experience couldn't begin to compare with witnessing the eloquence and passion of his words that day. Spellbound, hanging on to each word, each poetic phrase, we were a tapestry of black and white faces mirrored in the great reflecting pool
When it was over, I was tired but feeling inspired and exhilarated. I walked to the pickup point for my bus. Upon boarding, I spotted Buddy, just as I had found him that morning, seated alone about half-way back, his head buried in a magazine. On the ride back to New York, we shared our experiences of the day and sang along with passengers who spontaneously would break into classics like “We Shall Overcome.”
I don’t recall whether we stopped for dinner or where we took our bathroom break. God forbid we stopped at the gas station we'd used on the way down. If we did, it would have been a hoot and something I certainly would have remembered.
At one point, Buddy made a remark which I’ve not yet forgotten in all this time. “I’m thinking,” he began. “I could have made a bundle if I brought those little Martin Luther King souvenirs to the March. You know, those little statuettes, maybe like the ones that move a little. I could have really cashed in.”
I remember looking at him, wondering what this man, this Black man could actually be thinking? My God, this was his takeaway? Making money off MLK! Was he pulling my leg? He wasn’t smiling. To this day, I’m not sure if Buddy was serious.
But, what about my reaction? If Buddy was serious, perhaps he'd defied my stereotypic assumptions of what a Black man should be thinking or acting. Had I put him in a race defining box? Was I thinking-- “How dare you, a Black man, think as an entrepreneur, making money off your leader!” Oh, really?
If he were White, might I not have more easily accepted his proposed cockamamie money making scheme? Maybe my problem with his idea flowed from my own racial biases or assumptions.
Over the years, much has been written about the March. Often, commentators note that about a quarter of all the 240,000 participants were White. Some have seen that as an indication that the March – intended to promote equality for Black people -- was co-opted by White liberals.
On the other hand, others have cited the high turnout of Whites as proof that organizers of the March succeeded in reaching out to a wide array of Americans, and that racial injustice was not just a Black community problem.
There’s also been debate on another question. Was the March a major turning point in the civil rights movement, or simply a feel good “kumbaya moment?”
Malcolm X, the African American minister and human rights activist, maintained the March co-opted the revolutionary spirit of the movement. To quote from his autobiography: “The ‘angry blacks’ March suddenly had been made chic. Suddenly it had a Kentucky Derby image. For the status-seeker, it was a status symbol. ‘Were you there?’ You can hear that right today.”
Today, some six decades later, I don’t recall what the speakers had to say, except for King. I didn’t even realize that women were largely left out of the program of speakers until I read it later. In addition, some prominent speakers including author James Baldwin were not permitted to speak, apparently because of political fears of communist influence in the organization of the March.
What stands out for me, and has remained most vivid, was an overall feeling that washed over me that day. Standing in the embrace of that crowd, a moving sea of humanity, Black and White, united in a single purpose, was a rare experience of camaraderie and brotherhood, an overwhelming sense of grace and communal spirit shared with so many strangers.
Were we, for one precious moment, living King’s dream of residing in the promised land? Perhaps. All I know is that we really didn’t have to explain anything to one another. Just being there was, in itself, a statement. We showed up.
Jim Wise is a clinical psychologist, award-winning playwright, and creator of cartoons and inventions in Maryland.
With an estimated turnout of 240,000 people, the march in 1963 became the largest of all political demonstrations in U.S. history up to that time. Issues of racial equality and economic justice were at the top of a long list of demands.