Reflections on the March on Washington - 1963

August 28, 2013

The following is a reflection from the Rev. Gil Dawes on the March on Washington, August 28, 1963...

As the 1963 March on Washington D. C. for racial equality was approaching,  I was in missionary training at an ecumenical center in Stoney Point, New York.   Along with others from several different religious denominations the upcoming March was a matter of great interest that seemed as important to participate in as the oversees work for which we were preparing.  After all, how could we in good conscience prepare ourselves to share in making life fuller and more abundant for people in other nations whom we had never met if we did not share responsibility with citizens of our own nation who continued to be racially oppressed?  I personally felt that way, and waited to see if it would be possible for me and others to participate.  There was certainly no barrier on the part of the Administration to our doing so, and a number of the training center staff felt the same.

Nevertheless as the day drew nearer nothing seemed to be happening that would enable us to share in this critical effort for racial justice.  Finally, an Episcopal clergy woman strongly suggested that if anything was going to happen I would have to get the ball rolling, which I did!  I quickly circulated a list for persons to sign on for the trip, and with the interest indicated chartered a bus that would take us non-stop overnight for the March and bring us back the same way.

The day of the March, we arrived tired and bleary-eyed, but early enough to be among the first of what was later estimated to be at least 250,000 people.  None of us knew what to expect, but all had heard predictions of confusion and violence, which would not have been an unusual response to the Civil Rights Movement whenever people asserted their right for racial equality.  Instead, there was an almost eerie quiet in what appeared to be an abandoned city, except for those of us quietly streaming toward the site of the March. By the time things got started the entire area the full length of the reflecting pools was so jammed full of human bodies that there was literally no room to move your feet.  Neither before nor since have I been in a crowd so dense that movement could occur only when the whole mass of the people seemed to shift without moving your feet!  It certainly could have led to claustrophobia and panic with disastrous consequences, but it didn't because  the mood was one of exuberance and relief at the overwhelming evidence of deeply shared purpose and a spirit of quiet resolve!

As the music and speeches melded that mass of humanity even closer in spirit a young African man climbed a tree on the edge of the mall bordering the reflecting pool to be able to see and hear.  He was so caught up in what was he was seeing and hearing that he seemed totally unaware that he had torn out the entire seat out of his pants while climbing the tree.  A measure of my own mood was that seeing him I could only think of Zacchaes who also climbed a tree to see over the heads of the crowd who had gathered to hear Jesus and was so moved that it turned his life around!

When the sun grew hotter, and the speeches longer, the crowd thinned somewhat around noon before surging back again later.  In that brief breathing space and time an African mother with her children turned to me and offered me a drink of water from a Mason jar she had carried for her family, covered by waxed paper and capped by a canning lid.  I was so overcome with her spirit of generosity and my own sense of being a "Johnnie come lately"to the Movement that I stammered and choked back tears as I said, "No, thank you!" She then offered me a sandwich out of a paper sack before offering them to her family, and again I choked out a "No thanks!"  I have hoped ever since that she understood the reason for my response! At the time the experience that came to my mind took the form of Biblical imagery, leading me to think for the first time that the feeding of the five thousand by Jesus, not as multiplication of loaves and fish, but as division of what women had brought to feed their families, but first sharing with the stranger who becomes neighbor, whomever that might be!

The whole day went like that, but finally exhaustion took its inevitable toll, and we slowly drug our feet to waiting buses for the long redeye trip home.  Most seemed to fall asleep almost as soon as they fell off their feet into an open seat.  I too was totally exhausted, but my mind was spinning and wouldn't let me sleep.  The whole day kept passing through my mind as I struggled to understand what had happened!  Something had changed in me, but I didn't know what it was! It had to do with all that happened around me as well to others, and to a quarter of a million people together!  How could that be?  I didn't have any answers, and was too tired to think straight anyway!  Clearly, some kind of catharsis had occurred in me, but it wasn't just in me, and seemed to be inseparable from all of us together.

The whole experience had struck me in religious images and in my memory still does.  But with fifty years to reflect on what had happened, it seems as if collectively we experienced a kind of Pentecostal type of realization that things did not have to remain as they had been!  A better world was possible - Martin's dream did not come out of the blue, but was rather a summing up of the felt experience of all of us together that continues to reverberate throughout our nation today after fifty years!  It is the exciting potential that continues to motivate the lives of many of us, even while it causes fear in the mind of those for whom a non-racist society only feels threatening!

As the night wore on back then, and the years have passed by since, the question that persists is how we bridge that divide over how we translate our experiences regarding race across that gap in human understanding.  I have had to ask myself, and remind myself many times how I have come to make the choices I have made.  What made me open in the first place to the idea of participating in that March back in 1963, and why hadn't others made the same choice?  I was in no position to answer for them, and besides, I wasn't sure even about what had motivated me!  The more I thought about that question, the more I realized that at base, it was a matter of birth about which I had nothing to do with choosing.  Who my parents were, what they chose to do with their lives, and how all that effected me, except for attempting to adjust as best as I could to the givens was for the most part little credit or blame that I could realistically assign to myself.  Over the years I had learned to some extent what it meant to be born as the left-handed, white son of an itinerant preacher and wife.  This is after all a right-handed world, and if born otherwise you have little choice to adjust, no matter how awkward it may feel or look to others!

Being the first- born, white male in a family is something that all of us in that position take for granted without the slightest idea of the benefits and entitlements that offers us over others, or the resentment, envy and even hatred toward us that it may on occasion provoke.  If you are a "preacher's kid" (son) in that family there are all sorts of unique expectations and pressures placed on you by the community, if not your parents, that you don't understand yourself, and for good or ill about which you don't make particularly "free" choices.  In addition, in the Methodist tradition your clergy parent is an" itinerant" minister, meaning that your family is required to move every three to five years during the younger years of your life wherever appointed to serve.  That means you are the "new kid in town," and usually subject to the "pecking order" that entails.  If in the long run you could make friends, and I did, at the same time though I felt accepted there was always a recognition that I was not "born and raised" as the saying goes, and as a result provisionally included.  It was living with one foot in the present, and the other poised for the next move, wherever and when-ever that might be!

All of this is part of the given of my own background that had made me instinctively always side with "the underdog" even before I was old enough to recognize  that fact.
There was no question in my own mind that this alone would have moved me to be open to the appeal to participate in the March in "63".  Furthermore, it was by then a part of the "given" of who I was, and in all honesty with myself could not assessing credit to myself, or for that matter blame to others who weren't there.

Once my mind disposed of any feelings to the contrary about my motivation, a long forgotten memory came back with force!  When my brother and I were quite young, and on several occasions during our adolescents, Mother had told us of a powerful memory from her own adolescents, growing up as a farmer's daughter in Indiana during the teens and twenties before the "Great Depression!"  Her parents, our Grandparents had struggled to hang on to the farm years before the Depression, when as usual farm crises preceded urban depressions by 10-20 years.  They managed only by borrowing against insurance policies which were in abeyance until payed back.  In addition they raised all food they ate, buried garden produce in pits under straw and snow (the original concept of "deep freeze")  in the winter, and weekly traded their eggs in for stables they couldn't produce.

As Mother told us the story, she regularly rode with her Father in the horse-drawn wagon to take the eggs to town to trade for salt, flour or whatever was possible.  One Saturday when they made the weekly trip to Marion, Indiana (where I was later born in 1933), and they entered the outskirts and rode slowly toward the square, they noticed that the normally busy hustle of a Saturday morning was strangely missing.  The streets were empty, and there weren't any pedestrians to be seen.  Finally they saw someone and stopped to ask why empty streets and total silence!  The cryptic answer was, "If you drive ahead to the square and see what is hanging in the trees around the Courthouse, you'll understand!"  In stunned silence her Father understood the meaning in that heyday of the KKK's power in Indiana, turned the horse and wagon around made his way back to the isolated refuge of the farm as quickly as possible.

Mother then always added that on another occasion they took their eggs in to Elwood, another trading town, instead of Marion, only to find that exactly the same experience was repeated on the square in Elwood, and Grandpa's response was the same, and immediate!  Whether there was opposition to the Klan or not she never said, but the impression left in our minds was that it had free reign to pursue their racist agenda.  She also made clear that her Dad would not tolerate racism in his family, nor as a leader in the Methodist in the little town of Rigdon.  However, to the family's shame, my second oldest cousin as an adult became a pistol- packing member of the Klan!

This memory, once unearthed was alone reason enough to tell me what would have moved me to participate in the March of "63", but it immediately triggered another compelling memory from my childhood and youth.  As a Methodist pastor in Iowa, Dad always responded the the offer of Rust College (a Black Methodist College from the South) to come and sing in the church on Sunday morning to raise funds for the College.  Given the distance traveled that also meant that the singers needed to be provided food and lodging over Saturday as well.  Dad and the families of the congregation would see to it that all the hospitality needed was provided.  However, inevitably Dad would get an anonymous call advising him he had better understand that "they, (those people) had better not be allowed to stay in town overnight!"  Dad's response was to ignore such threats, but not without concern for the safety of the guests.  I remember these occasions especially from Quimby and Sutherland, Iowa, which apparently by some were considered to be "Sundown Towns," though it did not deter church members from offering hospitality, and turning out to welcome the guests who had come to share in worship at the church!

These memories from three generations have strongly motivated me, and I am glad to say that they have been passed on to the fourth and fifth generations - hopefully to share with others!  So, "surrounded by so great a crowd of witnesses," known and unknown, many of whom have paid by loss of their jobs, reputations, and some even by their lives; motivated as they were by sacred or secular persuasion, let us resolve like them to make the dreams of the past our agenda for the present in order that the hopes for a better world in the future may be its reality!  Steady and forward, as non- threatenly as possibly - steady and forward till what moved me and others fifty years ago has become mainstream and the "Pentecosts" of the past have been translated into Inaugurations of new and better times shared by all!  Moved by the conviction that "history does indeed seem to bend toward justice," in spite of miscarriages of justice, attempts to disenfranchise, denying democracy, and burying the dirty secrets of the past to preserve the power of the stratus quo!

Enough preaching - on with the practice!