I missed the civil rights movement, but at the third March on Washington Film Festival, I was transfixed.
That decades-old history is so much a part of our present.
Those 20th-century moments are sending shout-outs to this one: Here’s how it was, here are our stories — don’t they sound familiar — and Lord, it’s good to see you. Of course, that last part is just the old movement folks in the audience having their little reunions during the festival, which ends Saturday.
Tuesday I went to the Capitol Visitor Center to see the documentary “I Am Somebody” and hear about civil rights in South Carolina. The film details a 113-day strike by medical workers in Charleston in 1969 to protest pay discrimination, harassment and the struggle to be regarded as human. I was struck by the simple power of the story. I felt much the same watching last week’s film on Mississippi sharecropper and voting rights advocate Fannie Lou Hamer. I certainly know the broad strokes of civil rights history, but there are so many stories we haven’t heard, with nooks and contours we never imagined and legions whose names we don’t know.
I took my teenage son and instantly wished every parent in the region — heck, the country — could have done the same. It wasn’t just hearing a white official in the film say, “I do not believe this is a civil rights issue whatsoever.” And hearing echoes — that pool incident, that police shooting, those substandard schools for some kids, stellar ones for others have “absolutely nothing to do with race.”
But it was also culture and community, speaking across generations.
I was interviewing a woman sitting behind me when Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) walked in. From the corner of my eye I saw an older black woman one row in front of me tell my son, “Young man, that’s the only black United States senator.” Then she ordered: “Go on up there so you can take a picture with him.” Loved it!
If you have never been to a place where a mature black woman (turned out she was Emma Ward, Ms. Senior D.C. 2011) feels completely authorized to order around your child — whom she’s never met — then you’re just not living right.
Tenor Garrick Jordan says that when he was growing up in North Carolina, his mom took a bank slogan, “We have to be a whole lot better than good,” and posted it on the family’s refrigerator.
“It’s a double-consciousness thing,” says Jordan, who has master’s degrees in music and divinity but works for a nonprofit mental-health agency in Washington. “I’m a classical musician, but I didn’t find work because you have to have the right skin to be a tenor.” If he was a baritone, he could be a villain, he says. At auditions, he’d show up and be told “We’re not casting for that type.”
“You have to fight to be heard,” Jordan advised my son, who plays piano.
Jordan stepped to the microphone before the film and, with his first note, transported the room. God’s voice, I thought. Like Martin Luther King said about Mahalia Jackson.
Mignon Clyburn, a member of the Federal Communications Commission and a South Carolina native, spoke of history, community and grace. She knew four of the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting. The woman who first addressed the alleged gunman “had to voice forgiveness to wake up the next day in order to do the things she needed to do; to be strong for her family and hang on to her sanity.”
Clyburn says her father, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of the most powerful men in Congress, taught her that progress isn’t always a 50-50, equal effort. “I will meet you 60 percent there if it means we move forward,” he would say.
At the podium, Mignon Clyburn noted that “I am Somebody” was part of a snapshot of stories rarely heard of about “ordinary people who made the movement.”
I am jarred by the black-and-white footage, the violent intimacy of bayonets pointed at the chests of the marchers, who included children. Of Coretta Scott King, not simply the widow of a martyr but speaking in her own clear, forceful voice.
The Medical College of South Carolina settled the strike by offering higher wages and better job protections. That fight against structural racism continues, said Jamal R. Watkins, national outreach director of the AFL-CIO, invoking the Black Lives Matter movement and the minimum-wage campaign called “Fight for $15.”
Driving home, I asked my son what he thought of the film. “I liked it! I liked that old dude,” he said. He was talking about the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a King confidant and titan of the movement who was featured in the documentary.
I shook my head. Abernathy as “dude.” Lord, it’s a long march to freedom. That’s why I can’t wait for next year’s film festival.
For more by O’Neal, go to wapo.st/lonnae.