The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What MLK Day recalls in Washington

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to thousands during his "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 23, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (AP)

The third Monday of January is a day when we usually revisit the scenes of seminal events in the long, often bloody struggle for human equality in America: a bus boycott in Alabama, a boy’s lynching in Mississippi, the murderous attacks on Freedom Riders in the Deep South, the children being cursed and spat on as they were conducted into all-White public schools under court order. Today we’d like to bring remembrance closer to home, to the city and the counties in and around D.C., a region that is something more than the focus for the national government; it is also a cluster of communities in constant flux: growing, generally prospering, open to change and progress.

But a good many people who live here, mostly of a certain advanced age, can still honestly say: “I grew up in the segregated South,” by which they mean places such as Fairfax and Arlington counties, Alexandria, Prince George’s, even Montgomery County. It wasn’t Alabama, but at times it might have seemed a bit like it to Black people.

Sometimes it was a matter of law, as in Virginia, where many school systems remained segregated long after the Supreme Court in 1954 outlawed such practices (even D.C.’s public schools did not desegregate until the court handed down that decision), and where Black passengers might have to move to the back of a bus when it crossed into Virginia.

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But so much of the code of conduct that ruled daily life for Black and White was not spoken or written. It was simply understood, a matter of custom, immutable and silently threatening for those who transgressed. It was the day-after-day repetition of little insults that slowly crushed the spirit and the sense of a common humanity. At the motor vehicles bureau, a White woman might be addressed by the clerk as “Mrs. Smith,” the Black woman behind her in line as “Mabel.” A Black construction worker on one of the projects in Washington’s growing suburbs would often have to stand at the end of the lunch counter and get his food on takeout, to be eaten wherever he could find a place.

It’s not as if there weren’t many people of good heart and good intention who wished to do away with this petty tyranny of one race over another. In 1939, the great operatic contralto Marian Anderson was denied permission to perform in this city’s Constitution Hall because of her race. A couple of prominent Washingtonians named Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt arranged for her to sing instead from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where an interracial audience of thousands saw one of the most moving events in local history. But a greater one was to come on that same stage. In 1963, the 100th year since the Emancipation Proclamation, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was to lead a mass demonstration for civil rights at the memorial. There was considerable nervousness in Washington-area communities, and many people chose to stay home from work. But instead of a disturbance, there ensued a joyful throng of thousands, Black and White, who once again gathered around the reflecting pool before the statue of Abraham Lincoln for an afternoon of song and speeches.

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In The Post’s newsroom, a few television sets were rounded up for editors and reporters to monitor the proceedings as they went about their work — noisily, as usual. But as Mr. King spoke, toward the end of the program, a lot of the newsroom noise trailed off and people stopped to listen to the words as he began to hit the high notes — “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin,” and finished with the lines from a Black spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

The heavens didn’t open on that afternoon; there was much sadness and turmoil in the years to come, along with startling progress. But the reverend doctor had preached a sermon for the ages — words that helped bring hope and change to the country and to this community of ours, where he found his bully pulpit.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).