It was a flawless summer night -- not too hot, with just a touch of breeze to caress the brow. The kind of night that makes it easy to forget everything.
But last night was about remembering. Poll taxes. Literacy tests. Beatings. Shootings. In the middle of a summer filled with racial tensions, the 300 people on the top deck of the Spirit of Mount Vernon gathered to celebrate 25 years of tremendous change in the country -- all made possible by blacks and whites working together to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
It was part history lesson, part reunion and a renewed commitment to racial cooperation.
"I don't think there's any question that we have achieved more progress than any time in our history," said Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. "It's important for those people who have worked through the years -- not just black people, but all people who worked for the cause of advancing the human race -- to continue to unite."
Before Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law on Aug. 6, 1965, blacks faced armed state troopers in Alabama for the equal right to vote. But in recent years the percentage of blacks registered to vote has dropped, despite the fact that races such as Wilder's were decided by a tiny margin. Last night raised $200,000 for Project VOTE!, which has targeted the proceeds for eight states with particularly low registration among low-income and minority voters.
"The kind of work way back then required a lot of commitment that had nothing to do with jobs, dollars, station in life or race," said Barbara Lett Simmons, a candidate for the District's nonvoting congressional delegate seat. "Kids take it for granted with their manicured lawns and creature comforts. It's very difficult to jar them into knowing how much sacrifice went into that."
Poet Maya Angelou praised the evening's "heroes and the she-roes," including Wilder, civil rights activist Joseph Rauh Rep. Mike Espy, the first black representative from Mississippi since Reconstruction, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
Lewis, who led the Selma marchers, remembers a "great sense of interracial cooperation. We sought to build a truly integrated democracy and we made significant steps along those lines."
He said that in the South, polls show a greater sense of hope, a greater sense of optimism about race relations and a greater degree of cooperation than in the North.
"I think the voting rights efforts 25 years ago and the whole civil rights movement brought the dirt and the filth from under the Southern rug into the open light in order for us to deal with it."
Lewis was presented the Mitchell-Rauh Award, named after the team that spearheaded the Washington efforts to pass the Voting Rights Act. Espy was honored with the Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Award, named after the three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi.
"There's always been racism. The question is how we who aspire to leadership address that problem. It's there. You've got to deal with it straight up," said Harvey Gantt, the Democratic challenger to Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina who was slightly ahead of Helms in the latest public poll.
That won't change, he said, the fact that some whites don't like blacks or that some whites won't vote for him because he's black. Or that some blacks are terribly angry at whites.
"But we've got to look forward. We better damn well start figuring out a way to live together to address the big issues that affect us. Otherwise, we're going to become a second-rate nation -- more because of internal strife than external forces out there."