Saturday, August 24, 2013

March on Washington Remembered: The importance of speaking out

August 28 is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I was too young for the 1963 March, but 20 years later I went with a group of people to the anniversary march-Jobs, Peace and Freedom.

It was a very hot day on Aug. 27, 1983, so we went early and were among the last to leave. With 500,000 people in attendance, blazing sun and Washington D.C. humidity, it was hard to concentrate on the speakers, yet I was very attuned to those around me and that is what still stands out in my mind.

Our ad hoc group formed because several people brought friends. I only knew the person I traveled from Baltimore to Washington with, yet we were a reflection of the United States-Jewish, Christian, black, white, male, female and one woman had a major chronic disease-sickle cell anemia. We held hands as we walked through the ground so no one would be lost or left behind. Since our friend with “sick as hell,” as she called it, walked with a limp, we put her in the middle for safe keeping.

For a short while, we walked next to Pete Seeger, who towered over the crowd with his banjo slung over his shoulder. We could read his famous banjo head-“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Once we found our place to stand and settle in, the heat became oppressive. There were a group of older men next to us. They had been to the 1963 march and besides assuring us that the day was “a lot hotter than 63,” they were helping people in and out of the reflecting pool. While this looks serene and beautiful in the pictures, the more people walked in the water, the more the green scum from the bottom floated to the top. It was pretty gross, so you had to be desperate to cool off to stand in there for any length of time.

People were sharing whatever they had as far as water, ice etc. It was the effort to find shade to help our friend, who didn’t need a heat stroke on top of her other health problems,  that resulted in our walking through the Vietnam Memorial as we listened to Coretta Scott King speak.

Did the March on Washington in 1963 make a difference? While many people left this march and went back to the same difficult conditions, the country was profoundly change.

The 1963 March, really the first of its kind, shines as an example of peaceful demonstration that generated positive change. Few will forget Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.  The 1963 March not only laid the foundation for the advances in the Civil Rights movement, but also that for women, GLBT, the anti war movement, health care and more.

Starting in 1985, I was to attend a number of marches and rallies around AIDS. While I felt supported and experienced a high by the love and energy at the 1983 March, as well as at ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) rallies and other such events,  this was not always the case when taking a stance for better care and services for those with HIV.

The night the medical centers –I was involved in AIDS medical response planning – spoke to the Baltimore City Council about the impact of the disease on the City, I had a small taste of what the black colleges students experienced when they staged sit ins at the lunch counters in the south. We walked a gauntlet of placards and comments spewing hate, prejudice and anger. It crossed my mind that if someone had a gun hidden behind their sign, I could easily be killed. We said nothing, but kept our eyes focused on the direction we were walking in.

Ten years later, when we walked behind Liz Taylor in Washington at a major AIDS rally, it was a completely different feeling. Mothers with HIV/AIDS were walking with tags that said, “I’m walking for” and their child’s name was written in. The women shared their stories with one another, often pointing to a child’s picture they were wearing, and discussed what medications they were on. People sang “We Shall Overcome” as well as “Amazing Grace.” Suddenly there was a break in the song and the chant of “shame, shame, shame” passed down the line. Yes, the placard carriers were present, but far fewer in number, and  they were surrounded by police.

Last week, I watched a TED talk on “willfulblindness,”  which included the statistic that 85% of the time people say nothing even though they know something is very wrong. Instead of saying it’s not okay that certain people are discriminated against because of their diagnosis, the color of their skin, gender or sexual orientation they ignore it.

Fifty years ago, a quarter of a million people had the courage to walk in Washington to make their case. They changed the course of history by doing so. There will always be reasons that we need to take a stance, and fortunately we have a legacy that shows us how to do it with dignity, respect and non violence. 

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