Twenty years from now, I'll tell my grandchildren about the March of '83, and how we marched, amen, to the Mall, again, and one of them is sure to ask why?
Lord knows, child. Amen.
I'll quote Jesse Jackson, who said that in 1963 blacks had marched to "move in" and yesterday had marched to "move up." But if my memory serves me correctly, I'll confess that I was skeptical about spending my day marching--especially since the road to Ocean City was almost traffic-free for the first weekend that summer.
Some of my friends had talked about going swimming and horseback riding. But like a little boy who can't enjoy a Sunday sandlot ball game unless he goes to church first, I went ahead and marched.
When I arrived at the Mall, the gospel sounds of "Sweet Honey in the Rock" were beckoning brothers and sisters, and suddenly I felt a special invitation to join in. I hadn't seen a crowd so integrated since the Redskins carried the Super Bowl trophy down Pennsylvania Avenue, and this said to me something had changed. Joseph Rollins, a 75-year-old retired postal worker from Cairo, Ill., who marched 20 years ago, assured me that it had.
"White people used to put their dogs on me and laugh about it," the old man said nonchalantly. "You couldn't call on the law because they were the law. All we had was the Lord.
"Now, look around: white walking hand-in-hand with black. I still feel uncomfortable shaking the white man's hand, but that's why the younger people have to keep the struggle going."
I also met Kelsy Beshears, an 85-year-old grandmother from St. Joseph, Mo., who had also marched in 1963. You talk to the old folks for a while, and that all-important historical perspective quickly comes into view. "I just wanted to relive some of what had happened 20 years ago. It's invigorating," she said from her wheelchair. "The enthusiasm builds up and hope is high. It's a little more sophisticated than it was 20 years ago, because then people were operating from the gut. Now it's from the heart."
I began to feel better with each person I met. Okay, so nobody likes Reagan. But no one was consumed with hate. What did show was an undercurrent of frustration and a sense that even though much had been accomplished, the marchers still had a long way to go.
Elbert Ranson Jr., a D.C. government employe who is a cousin of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, told me he thought it was a "shame" that people felt compelled to march in 1983 and insisted that for all the changes that have occurred, some things have stayed the same.
Now here is a man who rode the same bus line to school that Rosa Parks rode, who sang in the choir at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., next to Coretta Scott King while Dr. King preached. On Ranson's office wall is a 1966 Chicago newspaper clipping of him and Jesse Jackson protesting outside a real estate firm.
When he talked, I listened: "The issues for blacks are the same as they were not just in 1963 but 1953: Jobs," Ranson said. "We were lulled into believing that once we got an education, good jobs would follow. But overt discrimination has been replaced by subtle segregation, and here we are again trying to appeal to the 'good' in man by marching."
The Rev. C.T. Vivian came in over the loudspeaker, saying that the "voice of freedom that was heard 20 years ago has been replaced with a voice of violence that speaks a racist language" and that there is a "voice of silence from the White House when there should be a demand for justice." Now I remembered C.T. Vivian from television footage back during the 1960s.
He didn't get much applause for his speech yesterday, but then I don't think many people knew that Vivian had taken one of the most brutal beatings ever administered by southern white policemen.
Every time he took a step toward the voter registration table in the Dallas County, Ala., courthouse, a deputy sheriff would club him to the ground. And Vivian would get up and take two more steps.
Even now, I remember this vividly. But today I have more hope that my grandchildren won't have any idea what I'm talking about.