To march or not to march, that is the question. Will I get out of bed two Saturdays from now and march to the Lincoln Memorial for "jobs, peace and freedom?"
There would have been no doubt about it 20 years ago, when the headlines read "Birmingham Church Bombed; Four Killed" and "White Charged in Freedom Walker Slaying." Back then, they dared me to march, demonstrate or sit in.
By this time 20 years ago, this city was pulsating with the prospects of mass action. Coordinating committees canvassed the city seeking room and board for the multitudes. Posters peppered the eastern seaboard. Civil rights legislation was pending, Kennedy was listening and George Wallace was hanging tough in Alabama.
Today, it's different. There is no drumbeat. No rallying cry from the King.
From Southeast to Northwest, there are feelings of uncertainty and indecision about joining in. Some say they have to go to Europe while the dollar is still strong; others have beach houses that will be available only during the week of the march.
Among the poor, whose plight such marches are intended to highlight, there appears a deeply rooted cynicism based on a belief that this time, no one--not even liberal whites--is listening. "I have to save my feet to look for a job," said one man who was waiting for day work on a street corner.
The earlier march took courage. But now all I'm asked to do is commemorate what others have done before me, to make a symbol out of a symbol and then assign to it a different meaning than it had 20 years ago. Instead of marching for civil rights--which could easily require extra shoe leather--I am also supposed to march for "jobs, peace and freedom."
I could see myself marching for civil rights, which is a moral issue with an appropriately prescribed nonviolent remedy. But marching for jobs seems to do as much good as standing in an unemployment line. For peace? I could join the No Nukes and throw blood on the Pentagon. For freedom? If we have to march for freedom, why do we have to look to Poland and South Africa for examples of incarceration?
I remember when Jesse Jackson tried a dry run march here several years ago, trooping from Southeast Washington to the steps of the Capitol carrying banners that read "Jobs, Peace and Freedom." Only 200 persons showed up, including the band.
It wasn't that people didn't care any more, they just had so much more to care about. A change had occurred within the black community and Jackson pinpointed it then with the poetic analogy of the "tree shakers" and "jelly makers."
Back in the '60's, there were the tree shakers who labored in the fields, shaking the fruit of opportunity off the trees. They marched, they sat in and demonstrated. They boycotted and integrated, fought with police, filed suits and defied orders.
When the dangerous work was done, then came the jelly makers--like me. All that was left to do was gather the fruit and start making jam. Judging from the increased sales of Cadillacs and Mercedes, they've been jamming ever since.
Twenty years ago, when marchers from out of town came, they packed up pillows and lunch pails, knowing that a ride from, say Mississippi, would be virtually nonstop, no overnight stays at roadside motels or snacks at southern lunch counters.
But two weeks from now, they'll be able to check into the better hotels and, if they so desire, rent a car or take a taxi to the monument grounds. After a grueling day of walking and speeches, they can relax at the poolside of their choice and enjoy dinner at the fanciest restaurants in town.
So why march?
Well, frankly, because to stay away and watch it on TV would be to thumb our noses at the labors of the tree shakers. After all, they had no delusions that once the monument grounds had been cleared that long-ago day in August, freedom instantaneously would "ring from every hill and valley."
They marched so we could--as the jelly makers do now--feel free from the necessity of doing so. And that is what makes this march obligatory.
Do we owe them any less?