The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: My memories

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.

Baez and Dylan

Baez and Dylan

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.

John Lewis at the Lincoln Memorial, 1963

John Lewis at the Lincoln Memorial, 1963

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.”

View of the Lincoln Memorial

View of the Lincoln Memorial

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,

SNCC Celebrates 50 Years

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina.  SNCC’s founding conference was held April 18-18, 1060 also in Raleigh convened by Ella Baker of the South Christian Leadership Conference.  According to Claybourne Carson in his history of SNCC,  In the Struggle (Harvard University Press, 1981), Baker was the one who realize the student need for autonomy and encourage the founding of a separate student group.  Many founders and early workers are now legendary.  John Lewis, Robert Moses, Jane Stembridge, Marion Barry, Diane Nash, James Lawson, Ruby Doris Robinson, Stokely Carmichael, Willie Peacock,  Julian Bond, Bob Zellner, Charles Sherrod, the list could go on and on.  It is wonderful that they are all being celebrated.

SNCC 50th Anniversary Logo

According to the conference website

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC (pronounced “Snick”) emerged from the student sit-ins that erupted on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although just four students launched these sit-ins, within two months thousands of students across the south were engaged in similar protests against racial segregation. On April 15, 1960, some 200 of these campus-based activists began meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina on the campus of what is now Shaw University and formed SNCC. In 1961, a handful of these activists committed to full-time work in the southern civil rights struggle; some of them postponing their college plans. SNCC became an organization of grassroots organizers.

Historians characterize SNCC as the movement’s “cutting edge”. Its “field secretaries” worked in the most dangerous parts of the south seeking to both cultivate and reinforce local leadership. Its uncompromising style of non-violent direct action confronted racial injustice throughout the South and contributed to the elimination of racial segregation. And SNCC’s unique “from-the-bottom-up” approach to organizing led to the emergence of powerful grassroots organizations.

 With “One Man, One Vote” voter registration campaigns SNCC paved the way for a new generation of black elected officials across the south. By breaking the grip of “Dixiecrats” on southern politics they changed forever politics in America. It is this work that laid the foundation for the election of America’s first African-American President, Barack Obama.

NRP also had a story on Weekend Edition this morning.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee has its 50th reunion this weekend. The civil rights group dates back to the first lunch counter demonstrations in Greensboro, N.C., that quickly spread across the South. One of the goals of the reunion is to get young people involved in tackling social, political and economic issues.

The story of Elwin Wilson’s apology to John Lewis was broadcast on NRP on April 16 as part of the coverage of SNCC’s 50th Anniversary.

Bunt Gill wipes raw egg off his clothing during a civil rights protest in 1960 in Rock Hill, S.C.

Bunt Gill wipes raw egg off his clothing during a civil rights protest in February 1960 in downtown Rock Hill, S.C. Among the hecklers in the crowd is a young Elwin Wilson (center, wearing a football jersey). Wilson later admitted attacking John Lewis, now a Georgia Congressman, in May 1961. He has since apologized.

These photographs from the anniversary website were taken by Danny Lyon who was a photographer for SNCC and had an exhibit at the conference.

Photo Exhibit

Of course times were very complicated and there were divisions between black and white students, between northern and southern student groups and eventually between movement men and movement women.  I was too young to go south for Mississippi Summer, so I had to content myself with boycotting Woolworth’s and going to concerts by the Freedom Singers.  By the time I was in college in 1965, I joined an SDS group and was very briefly an organizer for the Southern Student Organizing  Committee (SOCC) in Virginia.   SOCC was a southern “affiliate” of SDS and was founded at the time that SNCC was becoming a more militant, black organization.  SOCC disbanded in 1969.

So it makes me happy to see that SNCC has come full circle and is welcoming an integrated  group of third grade students from Oakland, CA as future civil rights leaders.

Future Activists

Future Activists

Happy Birthday, SNCC!

President Barack Obama

It still sounds very strange.  President Obama.  I started writing this yesterday, the day after the election, but couldn’t really find the words.

I was sixteen when I sat with my feet in the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial listening to the speeches.  I’ve said before that I remember John Lewis a lot more clearly than I remember Martin Luther King, Jr.  Maybe that’s because Rep. Lewis was the young guy of the all the speakers, the one closest to my age and someone I identified with.  The other night when he was being interviewed on MSNBC was when I began to lose it. 

I also thought about the night Douglas Wilder was elected Governor of Virginia.  My family has known him for many years and I still remember him cruising around Richmond in his powder blue Mercedes convertible. I worked hard for his election and felt a similar anxiety until all the votes had been counted.  And now Virginia has, as I’ve been predicting, gone blue.

Eugene Robinson  said it this way in the Washington Post this morning:

Yet something changed on Tuesday when Americans — white, black, Latino, Asian — entrusted a black man with the power and responsibility of the presidency. I always meant it when I said the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I always meant it when I sang the national anthem at ball games and shot off fireworks on the Fourth of July. But now there’s more meaning in my expressions of patriotism, because there’s more meaning in the stirring ideals that the pledge and the anthem and the fireworks represent.

For me, the emotion of this moment has less to do with Obama than with the nation. Now I know how some people must have felt when they heard Ronald Reagan say “it’s morning again in America.” The new sunshine feels warm on my face.