Working on a Dream

Peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread, and grapes. That’s what Hilda packed for me for lunch on August 28, 1993, after feeding me a breakfast of eggs and toast and scrapple. “This is what I packed for them back in ’63,” she said, “because it would spoil on the bus, and they couldn’t stop at restaurants.”

Hilda was the mother of my mother’s best friend from high school, Rachel, who had ridden a bus from Chicago with an integrated group to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. That’s why they couldn’t stop at restaurants, of course: few if any would have seated a mixed-race group in 1963. Their high school had its prom at a fancy hotel downtown that year, because no place in the suburbs would accept interracial couples.

I was staying overnight with Hilda, who by then lived in Washington, DC, near the National Zoo, the night before the 30th anniversary of that march, whose 50th anniversary was today. The next day I’d meet up with my best friend and then ride home on a bus that was half International Socialist Organization, half NAACP. A few days later we started our senior year of high school, wearing our tshirts from the march, as Rachel had gone back to start her senior year of high school from the original one (where, I must admit, I doubt they sold tshirts). I had been out east with my mother visiting colleges, the very sorts of colleges that many of the white civil rights volunteers in the South in the 1960s attended, the sort that I myself attended a year later. We ended our trip at Swarthmore, and then my mother put me on a train from Philadelphia to DC, where Hilda met me at the station. That night I started reading a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany that was in her guest room, though I still haven’t finished it. The next morning I took the subway to the Mall and met up with my friend near the Washington Monument.

I remember very little about that day because it was very, very hot. It was the kind of heat we had today in the Midwest, only multiplied by tens of thousands of bodies surrounding the Reflecting Pool and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where so many people got  up to speak that day and where so many of my heroes had spoken before. I know that Rosa Parks spoke, but I do not remember what she said. Mostly I remember an endless search for people selling water, in tiny six-ounce bottles for $2 each, highway robbery for water in 1993, but it seemed I could never get enough to drink. And I remember the seas of people in colored tshirts, like slices of a pie chart. There was the NAACP in one color, then the AFL-CIO in another, then some smaller union or state delegation in a third and a fourth and a fifth. I remember the tshirt vendors and wish to this day I’d bought the better looking $10 tshirt, which was white on black, instead of the cheaper $5 one, which was white with yellow and blue lettering. And I remember that on the bus ride home, our first stop was at a strip mall pizza joint outside district, a place where we were so rambunctious from exhaustion and dehydration that we left a tip for nearly fifty percent of the cost of our meal by way of apology.

It was, in short, the sort of experience you go to not so much because of the experience itself but so that you can say that you were there. I wore my tshirt back to school with pride, though no one seemed much impressed. But I was impressed. I had been there. I had been there with my best friend, who had been to the 20th anniversary with her mother when she was seven. I had stayed the night with the mother of my mother’s best friend, who was there for the big deal, the real thing, in living memory. I was there.

Later I would read about the problems with the March — how a lot of the SNCC kids hadn’t even wanted to go, how John Lewis’s speech had been censored (or toned down, depending on your point of view) so it was less critical of Kennedy, how a lot of the real activists thought it was just a big show. I got a bit cynical myself. I’d been to a few other marches on Washington, and after awhile they all start to seem the same. Take the bus (or drive, in my later, more decadent years) for twenty-four hours, get out and protest for eight hours, get back on the bus. Listen to a lot of people speak for three minutes each. See the event get no news coverage whatsoever, except perhaps for a picture of a guy on stilts (“why do they always take a picture of the guy on stilts?” my late friend Meg would say) or a giant puppet.

Later still I’d be in Wyoming watching the inauguration of Barack Obama in a school cafeteria, where it was being shown under duress. I stood in the back and cried, knowing that no matter what a disappointment Obama already was, or what a disappointment he would prove to be, that there was something miraculous about this, something to take note of. My friend Tim said some years previously that he assumed we’d have a black man as president before we had a woman, but that he’d probably be a Republican. I thought that was probably true but that it wouldn’t happen in our lifetime, and yet there was a black man being inaugurated. There was Aretha Franklin singing. There it all was, streaming through on a TV in a room full of tense white people, and me, crying.

Today I had the 50th anniversary of that great March on Washington streaming on the second monitor in my office, though I only got to watch bits and pieces of it. The other day in the car I broke down in tears listening to bits from John Lewis’s speech there on Saturday, and I went in to my son’s daycare and attempted to explain to them all what it meant. I was there twenty years ago, I said. I was there. “Oh, you must have been a child!” someone said in response, I assume in an attempt at flattery.

I’ve seen at least three stories lamenting the lack of a Republican presence at the event — amusingly enough, from the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, and MSNBC — bipartisanship exists in the media, people! Mark the day! I get the lament, but in a way I am glad. Dr. King was not bipartisan, although he was no great fan of any party. But he was explicitly political. His was not the politics of flags or commemorative postage stamps of inventors and entertainers. He was not, in his lifetime, someone everyone got behind because he had a dream. He was a leader in a movement that wanted to cash a check, that wanted jobs and votes and admittance as full-fledged members of society, not just drinking fountains and abstract ideas about character and freedom.

It’s pretty common in my circle of friends for people to post links every MLK Day to “A Time to Break Silence,” King’s speech opposing the Vietnam War, or to mention that he was speaking to striking sanitation workers when he died, or to talk about how yes, he did associate with Communists. But all of that is rare in official King celebrations. Making his birthday a national holiday was a triumph in many ways but also a disservice in some ways to the causes for which he fought.

Eradicating racism isn’t just about loving your neighbor and joining hands (although perhaps a little more loving your neighbor would have saved Trayvon Martin, and Amadou Diallou, and countless others before them). It’s about figuring out how to end the discrepancy between the black population of Iowa as a whole and the black population its prisons. It’s about ending the (sadly) quite reasonable fears that people of color have about being stopped by the police or even about being doubted in customer service transactions. It’s about people like me — people who think of ourselves as enlightened and with it white people — reading about how it’s actually not really helpful or cool to describe times we’ve witnessed racist behavior to people of color, because it just reinforces to them that such behavior exists rather than making us look cool for recognizing it.

So Republican leaders were invited to today’s commemoration and they didn’t show up? Well. Perhaps that should tell you something. Perhaps that should tell us that Dr. King isn’t just a faded memory, the sort of person you dig out when you want to think harmonious thoughts and sing “Kumbayah” off key, but with feeling.

Today I ordered a poster of the famous photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X standing side by side, smiling. I’ll feel like a little bit of a white girl poser when I hang it up in my office, but it will also remind me of something important: that both men are people my mother told me were important. Both were people she let me stay up late or go out at night to learn more about. Both had dreams, and both worked on those dreams through any means they found necessary.

The pie chart of colors I saw at the 30th anniversary march in 1993 was beautiful and inspiring but also depressing, as if each slice of the pie were only there for a part of the dream. I didn’t see that color coding on the Mall today, though perhaps that was due to the rain. I don’t have a solution to it. But I want to try. And I want to believe.