Remembering the March on Washington

In August 1963, I was a new law school graduate starting my last year of intensive preparation to become a civil rights lawyer under the tutelage of an extraordinarily gifted and committed band of attorneys at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Educational Fund, Inc., in New York City. God was headed south to Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and Louisiana and North Carolina and I would be going along for the scariest, most exhilarating, most challenging years any human being could hope for. But first came a thrilling, buoying moment that was one of the great days of my and our nation’s life: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

I drove Ella Baker from New York City to Washington, D.C. for the March in my brother Julian’s well-worn Volkswagen Beetle. Bob Moses and Jane Stembridge, the young white woman from Georgia who was the first employee Ella Baker had hired for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), traveled with us. We stayed with my sister Olive. On August 28th I stood on the National Mall with uncontained excitement and tears with Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Julian Bond, and 250,000 others. A photograph captured our group in the crowd with our arms linked, singing. “We Shall Overcome” was the anthem of the day. The March brought a whole community together across race and class as a show of unity and a collective gathering of people seeking jobs and justice. And then Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. electrified us all as he told America about his dream. We shared that period of hopefulness that Dr. King’s dream, which was also our own, could be realized in America in our lifetimes with the help of our hands and feet and voices.

Sixty years later, the iconic image of the March remains Dr. King delivering the inspiring “I Have a Dream” message he spontaneously added that day at the end of his speech. But the central metaphor that made up the first half of his speech was the bounced check America had written to its Black and poor citizens. Dr. King said we had come to the nation’s capital to cash a check America had written nearly two hundred years earlier. He reminded us that when our nation’s founders wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they had created a promissory note that guaranteed all Americans the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But instead of honoring that promise for Black Americans, America had defaulted on it and given us a bad check that had come back marked “insufficient funds.” Dr. King said those of us who had come to the March on Washington were there to cash our checks because we refused to believe “the bank of justice is bankrupt” or that “there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

He then reminded us of the urgency of the moment. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. has put the original three-page copy of the speech that Dr. King brought to the podium on display to commemorate this 60th anniversary. One of the images that jumps out from the worn typewritten sheets is the underlining under the word now: “We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of Democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” As Dr. King delivered it he added: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

This message is still our charge today if we would hear, heed, and follow it. The Children’s Defense Fund will serve as a supportive partner for the anniversary event on the National Mall on August 26th—“Not a Commemoration, a Continuation!” Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children, and sixty years later, our hands, feet, and voices are still needed.