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Thursday, August 29, 2013

50 Years On, and Moving Forward

It had to have been hot and muggy; of course this was Washington DC in August. Organizers for the rally for equality and jobs on the Mall fretted that not enough people would show up. After all, this was 1963; there was no Internet, therefore no blogs, and no twitter. No way for people to hear about the rally except mail, phones, hand fliers, and word of mouth.

A lot of people must have done a lot of talking, because 200,000 people came by bus, train, and whatever they could to get to the Mall on August 28, 1963. There they gathered, mingled, heard protest songs, and orations of inspiration. And they didn’t seem to mind the infamous Washington humidity one bit.

The main attraction was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the Southern Baptist Conference, who was already making a name for himself in the American civil rights movement. His performance climaxed a day of hope and the four words he used in his finale, “I have a dream,” have taken on a life of their own in American history.

Those words became the motto for the call to civil rights. Those words may have been a part of King’s repertoire for years, but they had never been spoken in front of such a large audience before. There were the 200,000 gathered in front of King in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. Then there were the countless millions watching on television in the comfort of their living rooms.

During this week, when we marked the 50th anniversary of the rally, there have been some conflicting stories on the television coverage of the event. One report stated that only one of the three (yes, boys and girls, we had only THREE channels to watch on television in 1963) networks covered the rally. Other reports state that all three networks were there. In any event, at least one showed up because we have their videotape (quaint!) preserving King’s performance for all time. Also, President Kennedy watched the speech on his television - whether he saw it live or pre-recorded has not been revealed.

The mainstream media did not give the rally a prominent position on their front pages; several newspapers across the country printed their accounts “below the fold”. The thinking was that the rally would lead to a race riot. When violence didn’t happen, America’s newspapers shrugged, “Nothing to see here!” On the other hand, the African American press played the rally and King’s speech big. The Pittsburgh Courier printed his words “I have a dream” across the top of the front page, even above the title of the newspaper! They knew there was something to see here.

King’s speech began with an acknowledgment that they were in the shadow of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, and drew the historical path between 1863 and 1963 when the nation defaulted on its “promissory note” of equality and justice to its African American brothers and sisters. He used a few other themes - “We cannot be satisfied…” and “Let freedom ring” - throughout. King had prepared notes for the first part of the speech, glancing down at them on the podium often during its first half. 

The reverend established a rhythm and concentration as he spoke. His concentration did not break for cheers or interruptions of praise from the crowd. It didn’t even break when a hand reached in to adjust his microphones. Then he went into the “I have a dream” theme, supposedly egged on by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. He knew these words by heart. From here until the end when he declared “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last" he kept constant eye contact on his audience. At this point, the crowd was at a frenzied peak, but King didn’t linger to bask in its glow like a superstar. There were no visible high fives or arms outstretched in a victory sign as he left the podium. Perhaps out of deference to Christian humility he exited the stage quickly and quietly, while the crowd roared its approval of his words.

This week, the occasion was marked with not one, but two rallies. One held the Saturday before the actual anniversary date of the event brought thousands to the mall. The actual anniversary date brought together prominent citizens and leaders to mark the anniversary, this time accompanied by light rain and not humidity. President Obama drew attention to the fact that the rally of 1963 began a slow change of attitudes and opportunity for African Americans at local and state levels, at the federal level, in Congress, and finally in the White House. Still, many observed that yes, progress has been made, but our journey is not complete and far from over.

This was a weird week for America. The past was marked with dignity. The present gave way to a mindless obsession with the whys and wherefores of a former child actress grinding her derriere on national television. The future is uncertain as always, with perhaps a new wrinkle of America entering a new conflict in the middle east.

In any event, America may not be in total post-racial mode yet. Still, at least 50 years on, we are moving forward.

(Thank you for reading! Twerking? Why, as in why are we paying so much attention to it?)


Blogger Harpers Keeper said...

If nothing else, I was prompted to learn what twerking was. I had to look it up to understand the full depth of this breaking news story

August 31, 2013 at 1:17 PM  
Blogger David Jeffreys said...

Again, a beautifully written post.

September 1, 2013 at 12:33 AM  
Blogger todd gunther said...

Hi Harpers Keeper, thanks for the comment. Twerking really makes break dancing look so sophisticated!

Thank you David. i try my best to get my ideas across.

September 1, 2013 at 7:45 PM  

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