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Soon after graduating from college, I was privileged to be able to participate in an event that shaped and animated my life forever thereafter. Five decades ago this year, I participated in the March on Washington. In the old photos of the massive crowd around the Reflecting Pool in Washington, I'm one of the specks near the treeline, on the left of the pool when viewed from the Lincoln Memorial. In honor of the 50th anniversary this year, here are my recollections of that memorable day.
As I shuffled off sleepily in the predawn hours, it seemed a lonely, quixotic thing to do. My parents humored me, but it was clear they thought their 22-year-old son probably had more productive ways to spend a late summer day.
By that evening, the day's events were already being read as an epochal moment in U.S. history.
The need to register our convictions was more potent than the expectation that anyone was listening
The March on Washington today is so closely identified with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech that they seem like synonymous phenomena, and indeed the Rev. King's words crystallized a movement and a moment as few other speeches in history have. From my foot soldier's perspective, that eloquent vision was the emotional high point of the day, but in the end it was The March, not The Speech, that spoke loudest.
In the pre-dawn darkness of Aug. 28, 1963, accompanied by a college friend, I boarded a chartered bus on Long Island as a gesture of personal support for the civil rights movement that I knew mostly from newspapers and television news reports. The movement was primarily a Southern phenomenon at the time — sit-ins, bus boycotts and other demonstrations against maddeningly unjust and unconscionable local laws and practices. We were hoping to nationalize the movement, to spur the federal government to pass an array of civil rights and worker rights legislation that would at last put the full force of the government behind our national, moral and constitutional ideals.
This one-day roundtrip to Washington seemed to me at the time an important but probably futile exercise in moral witness. Few people in my circle of friends could see the point of it. And on the deserted streets of suburban, white, upper-middle-class Great Neck, N.Y., on that morning 50 years ago, the need to register our convictions was more potent than the expectation that anyone was listening. Like the other sleepy stragglers trudging aboard the bus, I just wanted to be counted.
It's hard to propel oneself back into a historical moment — our views are inevitably colored by subsequent events — but let us try to recall that there had never been anything like the March on Washington; there was no model. Even the organizers struggled to characterize it. The marchers' manual said, lamely, "The March on Washington projects a new concept of lobbying." We have witnessed many massive marches in Washington in the intervening years — most notably anti-Vietnam war, pro-choice, gay- rights and Million Man marches. Although the 1963 gathering was formally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to us then it was known — and it still is — as The March on Washington.
People from hamlets and cities around the country converged on Washington, clogging the highways in every direction, with common grievances and common convictions, determined to grab the attention of a government that didn't seem to be taking seriously the moral outrage that I and so many others felt through my teenage years. The participants were of all races, regions, ages, religions and economic circumstances. Although many brave and principled people from the North had gone south to help topple the barriers erected by racism, the two cultures had not previously joined in massive numbers to mingle, express their common convictions and demand redress — and certainly not in the nation's capital.
At a rest stop on the pike, we began to sense for the first time the unfathomable dimensions of our pilgrimage.
We did not know what to expect at the other end of our journey, and the first leg of the trip was hardly notable — one bus heading west and then south, on empty roads long before the morning commute. So it was with astonishment and a rush of collective excitement that I can feel to this day that, in the predawn half-light approaching the nearly deserted Holland Tunnel crossing to New Jersey, we spotted — several tollbooths away — a bus adorned with a banner that read, "Harlem CORE Marches on Washington."
Another bus going to the same place! It was a stunning coincidence, a heartening confirmation of solidarity. We opened the windows and cheered and waved in the direction of the other bus.
On the turnpike, we soon spotted other buses — one here, one there, then clusters of them, some riding in tandem like families of motorized behemoths. At a rest stop on the pike, we began to sense for the first time the unfathomable dimensions of our pilgrimage: There were parked buses as far as one could see, endless rows of them spilling off the paved parking lot far out onto the grass apron. Temporary loudspeakers crackled out the names of groups as their buses were ready to depart. By the time we approached the outskirts of Washington, the highway appeared to be nothing but buses.
Entering the capital, we passed through some of the city's poorest African American neighborhoods. The unbroken line of silver buses bedecked with banners seemed at times to overwhelm the shabby houses we passed that morning, but in front of those houses was a welcoming committee more moving than any tickertape parade. Local African American residents — children in front, adults behind them, many dressed in white shirts and Sunday suits — stretched in seemingly unbroken lines for miles, looking up and applauding each and every one of the thousands of buses that wheezed and snorted past them.
They were applauding each and every one of the thousands of buses that wheezed and snorted past them.
There were no words in our vocabulary to describe the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial. It stretched beyond our field of vision in every direction. We had gone there to be counted, but there were far too many to count on that sweltering August day. Some said there were a quarter of a million people; some said a million. It made little difference — there were clearly far more people than had ever done this before, and far more than the "over 100,000" that organizers had ambitiously heralded in advance. With no previous historical markers by which to measure such events, the imagination could not wrap fully around what few facts were available.
Nor was there any sense of racial differences in that sea of like-minded people. To this day, I cannot give even the wildest estimate of the racial proportions of the crowd; I simply didn't notice — in itself a notable fact in that especially race-conscious era. I was overwhelmed by a joyous utopian vision of a world I had never inhabited. Martin Luther King articulated the dream, but down below in the crowd, we experienced it.
It was happening on the streets of Washington. It could happen anywhere, anytime.
I remember little of the official program. There was a drone of speakers, often only half-heard from deep in the crowd. My friend and I were about to go off in search of a bite to eat. We were discussing whether that was even possible in such a crowd — and where we might find it  — when a middle-aged woman in front of us overheard our conversation and remonstrated in a deep Southern drawl, "Honey, you can't go now. Martin Luther King is about to speak."
We knew the name, of course — we'd been reading about him for years in the newspapers — but at the time he was one in a succession of speakers, a great many of them with distinguished credentials and recognizable names, at a distant microphone.
We dutifully stuck around for what turned out to be the speech of the century.
...Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside ... LET FREEDOM RING!!
The words were electric, and reflected the sense of national convergence that we felt out in the crowd. His words were still echoing in my ears many tired hours later as we debarked into the darkness on Northern Boulevard in Great Neck. But the words rang not just in our own ears. When I got home, my previously skeptical parents were waiting up late for me, buoyed themselves by the epic panorama that had dominated the evening newscasts. History had passed that way, and they wanted to talk about it, to share in it.
Martin Luther King's inspired dream on Aug. 28, 1963, redefined and reinvigorated the American Dream, and hundreds of thousands of people lived out that dream symbolically on the streets of Washington. Many of us realized for the first time the power of individuals to add their numbers together to influence government policy, and we realized the power of an ideal whose time was long overdue.
Fifty years later, it's still overdue, which is why it may help to relive that day for those who weren't around. In an era of continuing racial injustice, advertent or otherwise, in voting booths, schools, courtrooms, prisons and elsewhere, we must rediscover the meaning of a community that extends beyond our own neighborhoods and races. My hope is that this anniversary will help reinvigorate the ideals for which we converged on Washington from all corners of the country.
It's time for each of us, in our own places and circumstances, to get back on the bus.
Copyright © Peter Sussman, 2013.