Fifty years ago I was a sixteen year old high school student living in New Jersey. My parents were community activists and very politically involved. My mother and several of her friends decided to go to Washington for the march and took me and several of my high school friends. I know there was some discussion about whether the march would turn violent and some calls were made (and long distance was a big deal back then) to my uncle who lived in D.C. He must have reassured them and said that he had signed up to make sandwiches to give out to people who didn’t bring their own. I remember being impressed because he was still a bachelor and, as far as I knew, wasn’t much of a cook.
So we kids were allowed to go along. I remember the bus ride as long and the bathrooms at the Maryland House really horrible. When we got to Washington, we asked to go off on our own and set off with a thermos jug of ice water (No bottles of water back then, just a jug and paper cups) and some bags of oranges and peanut butter and jelly (they wouldn’t spoil in the hot weather) and set off. It was an interesting little group: me (Japanese American), at least one African American girlfriend, and several white American boys. We wormed our way toward the front of where the march was to start instead of going to the end. I remember people shouting and seeing the folks from the famous picture of the front of the march go by. We fell in behind them. I later learned that some people had already started marching and the dignitaries were trying to catch up.
Once we got to the Lincoln Memorial, we first found a spot to sit near some trees, but we soon moved closer to the Reflecting Pool so we could see better. As it got hotter, and it was very hot, we joined many by putting our feet in the pool. We were pretty close to the front, close enough to see Joan Baez and Bob Dylan as well as Marion Anderson and Mahalia Jackson. We heard rumors that President Kennedy was going to come join us.
I’ll be honest and say that there were a lot, a huge number, of speeches. I don’t remember very many of them, to be honest. I know that I was excited to hear and see Myrlie Evers, Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates as part of a tribute to women of the Movement. But the speech that I remember best was not the famous one given by Martin Luther King, Jr. The one I remember most clearly was given by John Lewis. I think that was because he was with the Southern Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and I had met SNCC organizers. Also he was young and had been arrested many times. I had no idea at the time the speech was given that it had been censored, but it was still the most militant speech given that day. He ended
To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually but we want to be free now.
We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.
We do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood and true peace. I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until a revolution is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution. In the Delta of Mississippi, in Southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation the black masses are on a march for jobs and freedom.
They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond will not stop this revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our march into Washington. We will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.
By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall send a desegregated South into a thousand pieces, put them together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say wake up America, wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.
I still carry that image in my mind. A young black man thundering, “We want our freedom and we want it now.” But if he had included words he had wanted to include it is likely that the microphone would have been cut off. The original text included
I want to know, which side is the federal government on?
The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, “We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure, that could and would assure us a victory.”
At sixteen those words would have sounded so much better than “I have a dream.”
I think this was taken relatively early in the day. My friends and I were at the pool on the left, not too far back and for all I remember, we might already have been there when this was taken.
It was a long ride back to New Jersey and it turned out that I had heat exhaustion, but it was worth it to have been part of history.
There were about 250,000 people there and probably many more will claim that they were there, but I really was. It was my first large demonstration, but by the time the War in Vietnam was winding down, I was a veteran at these events. I’m not planning on attending the 50th Anniversary March this year, but I will be there in spirit.
Photograph: Baez and Dylan uncredited from Wikipedia
Photograph: John Lewis Bettmann/ Corbis
Photograph: Lincoln Memorial Miles Hodges, Kingsacademy.com