Sure, there were signs that history may have been in the making: The city was in virtual lock down, as extra policemen walked the streets and hospitals were cleared out. Roads were closed and many federal workers stayed away from downtown fearing mass chaos.
But for Earl Yates, my father, it was a workday like the others he’d spent as a checker at the Safeway on Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE. And because of that, he did not attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
It’s a decision that he regrets to this day.
“I was not very politically informed. I was aware of the civil rights movement and what it was. I knew who Dr. King was, I knew what was happening, but remember this was still at a very early stage [of the movement],” Earl, now 69, said of the day.
One might think that for a young man whose family moved to the big city from the sharecropping farms of Enfield, North Carolina in 1954, he’d have been right in the target demo for those there picketing. But ironically, it was his job that actually kept him away from arguably the most famous organized demonstration in this country’s history.
“People from all across the country [were saying], “We’re going to Washington! We going to Washington!” and for the rest of us [it was] ‘we’re going to work,’” he noted. Something that as a matter of pride, he had to take seriously.
Earl’s father Waddell, worked off and on as a handyman and janitor after the family moved to D.C. when Earl was 10 years old. My grandmother Mary never did any work for pay after she was no longer a farmer. With 10 kids, she had plenty family to take care of. Like many of his generation, Earl would become the first in his family to pursue higher education, something he did after a buddy convinced him to go to a College Club meeting at Eastern Senior High School.
As he tells it, he was just being a teenager, who lived with his parents, brother and nephew in a two-bedroom apartment on 37th St. SE.
“The Duke of Earl is the number one song in the country when I turned 18 years old,” Earl recalled of that summer before college. “We had a massive party in that apartment, a jamming party. No booze, no drugs, no sex. It was big time.”
But after year one, priorities changed. He had picked a major, Spanish, and was on the hook for paying for school after his older sister Viola, footed the bill for his first year. Taking a day off from his part-time gig for a march, did not seem like a reasonable option.
“These guys were career Safeway working guys and I was a college guy and they didn’t care that much about me. They gave me the job because my older brother Buck had told them, ‘you gotta give my brother a job.’ So, I was working there,” he said. “They didn’t give a [damn] about going to the march. They weren’t going. I sort of suggested that I wanted to go, but it was like ‘you’re working that day.’ End of story. I didn’t push it.”
But one conversation from that week still lingers with him. One that he thinks if it had gone just a bit differently, might have changed his outlook on life. One woman who was headed to the Mall for the event, asked him if he wanted to join. He declined, citing his current situation.
“When she said, why don’t we go down there, she sort of looked at me and didn’t say anything else. But had she been someone close enough to me, to say, ‘You need to go. I’ll talk to them [his managers], you need to go.’ … There was not that influence and there was not that helping hand along the way,” he said. “I was not at the point in my consciousness in my heart and analysis of need. I didn’t feel there was any pressing need for me to be at that march.”
So when he clocked out of his shift, he went home and watched the highlights on the evening news, just like the rest of America. “There was nobody saying ‘you weren’t at the march?!’ Not to me, not to anybody else. There was no ‘You weren’t there?!’ It got bigger through history.”
He went on to a career in international relations, doing his best to contribute to the civil rights efforts around the world as an adult. But his experience as a young man in 1963 was a direct correlation to why in 1995, he didn’t want to miss the Million Man March.
I was a freshman in high school, and he made sure that 3 of my friends and I were part of that moment. As a 14-year-old, it was an enlightening, empowering and enthusiastic experience. Having not even realized how much faith I’d lost in society, that day rejuvenated much of it.
“For me it was important to get as many numbers as we can, and to have you appreciate that we need to be there, because this is that important. That’s what my motivation was. I would have felt that it was a major failure of responsibility to you to not have that happen,” he said of that day.
Today, we’ll both watch as President Obama addresses the nation from the very steps that Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I imagine it’ll be a pretty emotional moment for him, and for many who, for whatever reason, couldn’t make it 50 years ago, either.
“History’s funny,” Earl said, realizing that he’s been waiting a lifetime for this day to come. “Looking back gives you a lot different view than looking around when you’re in the moment.”
I wonder what the 19-year-old inside of him will see.