In July of 1963, I was preparing for my senior year at Nashville’s Pearl High School. Three years earlier, Diane Nash, John Lewis and other Black college students had marched past our school on their many trips downtown to the Nashville sit-ins. They were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that was leading sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Some of Pearl’s students were bold enough to sneak out of school to go downtown behind them. Not me.
Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips II” was redefining (and refining) rhythm and blues among my generation. Finding the next party with lights hung like Christmas ornaments from the backyard clothes line occupied our time when we weren’t consumed with extra credit summer school classes as we aggressively accumulated points toward our coming admissions to college.
In the summer of 1963, the Birmingham demonstrations — which were nonviolent direct actions — were no longer on television, but Medgar Evers, field secretary for the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had been assassinated in his front yard in Jackson, Miss. For me, news about the civil rights movement became an unsettling blend of darkest tragedies and heady victories.
In Craighead Barber Shop on Nashville’s Jefferson Street (the main Black business and cultural artery), Black men debated the pros and cons of the actions of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, SNCC and others. One debate centered on whether Dr. King’s coming to town again was good or bad.
I still remember the letdown I felt when the arguments began to turn on the question: What would the good white people think? On one hand, I didn’t have the words to describe such deference to how others might feel and, on the other, I felt it was not yet my turn to speak my 16 years of accumulated wisdom and courage to those grown men.
It was at the barbershop that I first heard about the upcoming national “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” When I heard that the march was going to be the subject of the next mass meeting at Clark Memorial Methodist Church – a congregation that had already hosted many of Nashville’s civil rights organizing activities – I went. Although, to this day, I can’t recall who spoke, who sung or who prayed, I immediately got caught up in the spirit of the meeting.
The speakers talked about the significance of going to Washington, that there would be thousands in attendance and that they wanted youth participation from Nashville. And then someone said one seat was left on one of the buses for a youth. I raised my hand and, before my hand could be recognized, I was running to the front of the church saying I wanted to go.
Mrs. C. E. McGruder, then president of the Nashville NAACP, explained that I had to have my parents’ permission to go on the march. No problem, I thought. Mere technicality. Excited, I ran home and breathlessly told my mom that I needed her permission to go to the “March on Washington.”
My mother looked at me with a stare I had come to know over my young life of testing her patience. Trying to get ahead of the dooming stare, I told her how important the march would be and how much I wanted to go.
She listened, mostly for me to finish, and said simply, “No, you might get hurt.” The decision was final. I ran, but not as fast, back to the church to tell Mrs. McGruder that my mother would not let me go.
What I did not understand at the time was that violence befalling Black folks in the South seeking change at any level and in any venue was a constant reality. What I did not understand was that when racist violence was not absolutely capricious, it was absolutely arbitrary. What I did not understand was that I was being protected by generations of Black mothers’ wits against an old, cagey and dangerous foe.
The March on Washington was hailed as the largest protest in American history – and a peaceful one at that. But the glow from the nonviolent march evaporated when, less than three weeks later, four young Black girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. As if to claim dominance over hearts and minds, violence struck three months after the march with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
A year after the march, it was time to go to college. I had decided to go to the University of Tennessee (UT), where I was to major in engineering physics, a five-year interdisciplinary program that combined a technical education with a heavy offering of liberal arts, basic sciences and languages. Graduates of the curriculum were expected to become project managers with companies and institutions such as NASA. The saying was scientists couldn’t build anything, engineers had no vision and this profession was needed to manage the two. Vain.
In UT’s new thousand-student freshman dorm, the only two African-American students were roommates. Across the hall from my room was another engineering physics major, who stood out among white students because he was friendly to me. Early in that first quarter, he asked if we could study together. I welcomed the opportunity because I loved the idea of team-tackling science and math problems.
After a couple of sessions, however, it became obvious that this teaming wasn’t an even deal. I was helping him far more than he was helping me. He asked me what scholarships I had. I told him none, that I was there on educational loans. He expressed some shock, and I asked why. He replied that he was on a full physics scholarship provided by the university. Then I expressed shock. Here I was tutoring a white, out-of-state scholarship student while I was on a college loan.
The U.S. government has filed civil rights charges to protect people from violence since Reconstruction. In 1982, Asian Pacific Islanders voiced outrage over the beating death of Vincent Chin. Civil rights charges were filed a year later. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Voting Rights Act used outdated information and gave states more authority.
It was that moment, in that freshman quarter, I lost my “glad to be here” attitude and opted for something else. By my junior year, I had co-founded UT’s Black Student Union, helped elect UT’s first African-American student-government president and discovered a haven for challenging my limited worldview – Knoxville’s Highlander Center.
The 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” called upon the best of the American promise. As Dr. King noted, though the arc of the “moral universe” is long, it bends toward justice. Of that, there was ample contemporary evidence as the global struggles for national liberation resonated with African-American struggles with a call-and-response, mutually reinforcing cadence.
But, looking back over the span of 50 years since the march, other, more sinister, arcs come into view. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s – its gains and the transformations it occasioned – occurred during a period of American economic growth. In addition, from World War II until around 1980, the wealth gap between the poorest American and the richest actually closed. In that economic environment, reactionary and backward reactions to demands for racial justice were heard but not heeded.
Today, however, with the wealth gap expanding and the middle class on the same downward trajectory as the poor, a near maniacal fear of the future is a potent weapon in the arsenal of political forces that would divide America’s families for power and profit. Add the coming majority-minority nation to the mix, and it becomes a potentially toxic brew.
The upcoming March on Washington – called in the era of Supreme Court decisions gutting the Voting Rights Act, a Congress hamstrung by deliberate attempts to frustrate the interests of the people and the presidency, and open economic and political power plays by billionaires desirous of even greater democracy-bending license – has its own challenges to meet. It must address those challenges in what can be, at times, a more threatening environment than that of the 1963 March on Washington. In many ways, the 2013 march has a harder challenge.
The 1963 march carved out new ground. The 2013 March on Washington can be significant in recovering lost ground and building the foundation for a national movement that includes brighter prospects for low- and moderate-income American families, a movement in which those families work together to overcome fear and division, jingoism and xenophobia, racism and sexism.
Or as Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared to the nation 50 years ago this month: “We can never be satisfied…until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Scott Douglas is the executive director of Alabama-based Greater Birmingham Ministries, a multi-faith, multi-racial organization that is dedicated to pursuing social justice, helping those in need and building stronger neighborhoods.