This week brought bookend celebrations.
Monday there was the dedication of the new Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, a brilliant re-creation of the nation’s first public high school for African Americans, with its legacy of producing some of America’s best and brightest achievers. From 1870, Dunbar, staffed with outstanding academics, produced a cadre of men and women who rose to the top of their fields of law, medicine, education, the arts, science, government, sports and entertainment at a time when the odds were stacked against them.
Saturday there will be commemorations of the event that shook the nation’s conscience 50 years ago — the massive gathering, the soul-stirring speech — a mighty punctuation mark to show this country where it really stood in the fulfillment of the American creed.
Historical context is key. The social and political climate that gave rise to Dunbar and the milieu in which the March on Washington occurred are as critical to this week’s observances as the events themselves.
Until the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decisions, students at Dunbar and the city’s other black schools could not attend school with white kids. It was a time in the nation’s capital when African Americans couldn’t sit with whites in restaurants or go to the same movie theaters.
But prejudice found life in more than social and legal restrictions. In the years when Dunbar turned out young scholars, hatred of African Americans flourished elsewhere in the nation through acts of terrorism.
Dunbar smashed to bits the notion of white supremacy. But it couldn’t dispel prejudice.
Before al-Qaeda, there was the Ku Klux Klan.
In the 1930s, when my mother, Amelia Colbert King, and her classmates graduated from Dunbar, more than 100 blacks were lynched — murdered by white mobs — in this country. Twenty-four were killed just in 1933.
In the fall of 1954, the year I entered Dunbar, white students at Eastern, Anacostia and McKinley Technical high schools, and several white junior high schools, staged walkouts to protest the assignment of black kids to their previously all-white schools. We at Dunbar saw firsthand that white students at 10 secondary schools in our own city didn’t want to have anything to do with us because of our color.
President Obama spoke recently about the experience of African American men, himself included, in being followed while shopping in a department store. Frankly, that’s an improvement over my experience growing up in the ’50s. Blacks couldn’t even try on clothes or spend money at downtown stores like Garfinckel’s.
Try excelling under those conditions. Context is everything.
So too it was 50 years ago. The quest for freedom didn’t begin and end with the Aug. 28 march.
In April 1963, an African American college student sat at a Birmingham, Ala., lunch counter for a meal. She was never served. Instead, she and 20 other students got arrested for their troubles.
On May 3, a 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator in Birmingham was attacked by police dogs for disobeying an anti-parade ordinance. Days later, firefighters, backed by riot police, soaked anti-segregation marchers with fire hoses.
On June 21, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door — the administration building at the University of Alabama — to prevent two African American students from enrolling. One of those students — Vivian Malone Jones — is the sister-in-law of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Other activists didn’t fare so well.
Civil rights leader Medgar Evers ended up in a casket in Jackson, Miss., that month. He was shot and killed outside his home by a member of the White Citizens’ Council. Evers now rests in Arlington National Cemetery.
On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the owner of a segregated lunchroom in Cambridge doused with water a demonstrator sitting in front of his store. A raw egg was also broken over the demonstrator’s head. All of the protesters — three were white, eight African American — singing freedom songs were arrested. The date: July 8.
On Aug. 28, 1963, “I Have a Dream” touched the nation, but not everywhere.
On Sept. 15, 18 days after the March on Washington, a box of dynamite planted under the steps of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church by four Ku Klux Klan members exploded, killing four African American girls and injuring 22 others.
Yes, celebrate this week.
But for some of us, the quiet truth is that the interrelated conditions surrounding the histories of Dunbar and the Great March are searing experiences that, drawing upon the court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, affect our “hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.