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At the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

      As a nineteen-year-old college student, I saw Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaim his Dream. His oration at the 1963 March on Washington would capture the nation’s attention, and his legacy ultimately became the focus of my career. In the days before the march, however, my view of King and his significance changed when I met Stokely Carmichael, a young activist affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Stokely made me aware that King was only one element of the Movement – the ongoing, multifaceted mass struggle to overcome the Jim Crow system of racial segregation and discrimination. Although I continued to admire King, I learned that the brash protesters and “field secretaries” of SNCC were the Movement’s spearheads. They exemplified the rebelliousness and impatience I felt as a teenager.

      I had grown up in Los Alamos, a small New Mexico town far from the frontlines of the southern protest movement. Nonetheless, I paid close attention to news about civil rights activities – especially when they involved black students near my own age. When I was in eighth grade, the Little Rock Nine students were braving white mobs to desegregate Central High School, and when I reached high school, the student-led sit-ins and freedom rides were in the news. During the months before the march, President John F. Kennedy stirred me with his televised speech urging Americans to see civil rights as a “moral issue” – although I wondered why it took him so long to recognize this. While courageous young black activists were battling entrenched racial oppression and capturing the nation’s attention, I was resigned to return to Albuquerque for my second year at the University of New Mexico.

      Several days before the March, I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, as part of the UNM’s delegation to the National Student Association’s annual convention. Stokely, a Howard University senior, was representing SNCC. I was vaguely aware of SNCC’s involvement in the sit-ins, freedom rides, and Deep South voting rights campaigns, but Stokely seemed to be a knowledgeable Movement veteran. His lanky build, intense demeanor, and copious confidence made him a magnet of attention at conference sessions and impressed me to the point of envy.

      As the only black student on UNM’s delegation to the NSA conference, I felt a special responsibility to inform myself about the convention’s most contentious issue: whether the organization should support the upcoming March on Washington. I listened as Stokely insisted that NSA not only back the march, but also give financial support to SNCC. Some delegates warned that passing the resolution favoring the March would prompt the withdrawal of southern white colleges from NSA, perhaps fatally damaging the organization, which relied on fees paid by member colleges and universities. Despite these warnings, Stokely’s arguments, often peppered with sardonic criticisms of cautious liberalism, persuaded me.

      When I took part in an informal caucus of delegates supporting SNCC’s position, I was able to observe Stokely close up as he guided the discussions. His unfamiliar accent made me wonder whether he was a foreign student. I learned that his parents were immigrants from Trinidad but he had spent his teenage years in New York. I wasn’t surprised when he mentioned that he was a philosophy major. As he described SNCC’s projects, I found it remarkable that a small group of young people had taken on such an ambitious mission. I also realized how much I was missing while attending a predominantly-white university distant from the southern, student-led protests of the early 1960’s.

      I didn’t feel I had much to contribute to the discussions and hoped that my presence was enough to indicate support. When I had my only chance to speak privately with Stokely, I confided that I planned to attend the upcoming March on Washington, perhaps thinking this would assure him that I was not a complete bystander in the southern struggle. “Who cares about that middle-class picnic?” he retorted. “If you really want to help the movement, volunteer for one of SNCC’s projects and get a taste of the real movement.” I said I would think about it but knew that I would almost certainly return to school and ultimately become the first college graduate in my extended family. Although I had no quick answer to his challenge, his words stuck in my mind.

       My understanding of SNCC was also affected by a long conversation at the conference with Lucy Komisar, the young white woman who edited the Mississippi Free Press. Lucy patiently explained the crucial, yet largely ignored, battles over black voting rights that were happening in Mississippi. She told me about Bob Moses, who had initiated SNCC’s voting rights efforts in the state, and about the 1961 killing of Herbert Lee, which was part of a continuing campaign of violence against voting rights workers. She even took the time to teach me some freedom songs.

     Stokely and Lucy, in their very different ways, made me aware that people close to my age were moving beyond just voicing their support for civil rights by dedicating their lives to the struggle. They convinced me that SNCC was the spearhead of a nonviolent crusade against white supremacy in its Deep South strongholds. Although I was not ready to drop out of college to fight on the Movement’s frontlines in the Mississippi Delta, Selma, Albany, Danville, Cambridge, and other strange places, my impetuous curiosity had a new focus. By the time NSA delegates voted lamely to back the goals of the March but not the March itself, my perspective had shifted toward SNCC’s. I began to realize that King, the nation’s best known civil rights leader, was part of a freedom struggle seeking far-reaching changes and spearheaded by grassroots activists whose names were rarely in the newspapers. 

     Although it would be three years before I saw Stokely again, that first encounter strengthened my determination to find some way to connect with the Movement. When I learned that a ride to the March was available on a bus chartered by an Indianapolis NAACP group, I eagerly agreed to go and told my UNM colleagues that I would not be returning to New Mexico with them. I didn’t bother to tell my parents about the change in plans, realizing that they would be worried. Dad might not have objected, but Mom almost certainly would have insisted that I not participate in any demonstration, and she was the dominant, sometimes domineering parent.

     I left my suitcase in a locker at the Indianapolis bus station and boarded a bus full of strangers that left early on the evening of August 27. I had less than fifty dollars in my wallet and a return bus ticket from Indianapolis to Albuquerque. It was my first trip to Washington, my first venture so far from home, and my first demonstration of any kind, but I don’t remember feeling anxious or uncertain. I was confident that my impromptu adventure would turn out well.

      When the bus arrived in Washington the next morning, I was exhausted by my choice to give up hours of sleep talking to Sylvia, a winsome Jewish teenager. We promised to stay in touch but didn’t. As I got off the bus, an elderly black man, who must have quietly observed me during the ride, pushed a twenty dollar bill into my hand, guessing correctly that I was worried about having enough money to return home.

      My memories of the remainder of that day are a mixture of vague and vivid impressions. I was amazed by the multitude of marchers – far more black people than I’d ever seen growing up in Los Alamos, New Mexico.  Accustomed to dry mountain crispness, I found it hard to adjust to the warm, humid air. Although I was impressed that most of the adults were well dressed, despite the heat. Sweat on my white cotton shirt compelled me to take off my sport coat.

      I decided against carrying one of the official printed placards offered to me so that I could dart around the slowly moving marchers. Self-consciously aware that I don’t sing well, I only intermittently joined in the endless choruses of “We Shall Overcome.” I noticed a black contingent from Mississippi who energized the crowd by snaking through the marchers shouting some of the spirited freedom songs that Lucy had taught me. Although I imagined that most black Mississippians lived in conditions only slightly removed from slavery, these demonstrators exhibited a sense of freedom that struck me as subversively enticing.   

      I don’t remember talking to anyone that day, although I may have.  My shyness inhibited me from reaching out to other young marchers, most of whom seemed to be with families or groups. Approaching the Lincoln Memorial, I edged through the crowd toward the speakers’ platform to get a closer view of the famous people who were being introduced.

      I recognized some of the scheduled singers from appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, which my family watched on Sunday nights. I never imagined seeing in person Marion Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. When actor Ossie Davis announced that W. E. B. Du Bois had just died in Ghana, I had a slight sense of recognition that the famous author of Souls of Black Folk had left the United States after becoming a victim of anticommunist hysteria. By early afternoon, after the Tribute to Women Freedom Fighters (including student activist Diane Nash Bevel and the recently widowed “Mrs. Medgar Evers”), the sticky heat led me to join the people who removed their shoes to cool their feet in the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool.

      Because of my new awareness of SNCC’s significance, I had a special sense of anticipation when the March’s director A. Philip Randolph introduced John Lewis, the group’s recently elected chairman and the youngest speaker on the program. I knew by then that he had been a Nashville sit-in leader and one of the freedom riders who were imprisoned in Mississippi during the spring of 1961.

      Although his rural southern cadence contrasted sharply with Stokely’s urbanity, he too exemplified SNCC’s militancy. With blunt earnestness, he talked about the “nonviolent revolution” sweeping through the South. “We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually,” he insisted. “We want our freedom, and we want it now.” Like Stokely, he seemed willing to risk alienating some of his listeners. I was pleased that his remarks prompted a few rounds of applause.  

       By the time King rose to speak in the late afternoon, I was preoccupied with thoughts of finding the bus that had brought me but was also aware of King’s oratorical reputation and didn’t want to miss him. Slowly moving away from the Lincoln Memorial, I could barely see him on the speakers platform. The loudspeakers conveyed his distinctive voice: “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

      His words confirmed the correctness of my decision to be there. At the time, I didn’t fully understand his challenge to “the architects of our republic” or his cascade of biblical and historical references, but I sensed the way in which his metaphorical, tradition-laden diction conveyed the March’s importance. I had never heard a black Baptist preacher before, so nothing in my young life could have prepared me for King’s singular ability to inspire his listeners by expressing their aspirations better than they could themselves.

      Many of the previous speakers had referred to Kennedy’s proposed civil rights legislation, but King’s address suggested instead a broader transformation of the nation’s race relations. John Lewis had stressed the urgency of change, but King transformed “Freedom Now!” into passionate poetry:

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 quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

      Stokely Carmichael’s barely suppressed racial resentment and John Lewis’s call for a nonviolent revolution aroused me, but King also cogently expressed the volatile blend of militancy and moderation that attracted me to the March. He warned “that there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights."

       How could I have known then that I was listening to a great speech, rather than simply the last of a long program of speeches on a sweltering day? I cannot remember exactly when I learned that King’s speech even had a name. I would later discover that King’s “I have a dream” refrain was extemporaneous – a last-minute extension of his prepared remarks. I couldn’t imagine having confidence to speak to so large an audience on such an important occasion and then make up a new conclusion on the spot.

      His rousing conclusion would soon become embedded in my memory, but discovering its deeper meanings would take many decades. It is likely that my immaturity, my lack of historical and religious understanding, and the distraction of finding a ride prevented me from fully appreciating King’s “dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” My immediate dream was far more practical: finding my way back to New Mexico.

       Failing to find my original bus, I impulsively accepted an invitation to ride with a group from Brooklyn. Still half asleep when I arrived at Penn Station, I took the subway to Harlem, guessing that I could find an inexpensive place to stay for the night. After asking for directions to a cheap hotel, I paid a few dollars to sleep on a stranger’s couch. I spent the next morning gawking at the skyscraper canyons of central Manhattan before exchanging my bus ticket from Indianapolis to Albuquerque for a ticket from New York to Indianapolis. 

      Only then did I call Mom collect to explain, as imprecisely as possible, my sudden detour. I told her about finding a ride to the March and then meeting a group from New York, but said little about how I planned to return home. I didn’t really have a plan – only that I would figure things out after getting much needed rest on the bus ride from New York. The tone of her voice told me that she was not pleased, but fortunately she didn’t want to run up a large phone bill talking to me.

      I would never tell my parents that I rode overnight back to Indianapolis and then hitch-hiked the remaining 1300 miles to Albuquerque. After reaching Illinois, a black couple gave me a ride to St. Louis. Arriving well after midnight, I had to walk for several hours to find the interstate highway.

      The next night, I survived a harrowing experience in Oklahoma when a middle-aged white man stopped for me and then immediately warned, “I’ll shove you out of this car, if you cause any trouble.” I wondered why he stopped for me, but surmised that he wanted to talk to someone. His slurred voice and erratic, high-speed driving betrayed that he was inebriated. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “I helped plan this highway. I know it like the back of my hand.” Predictably, he hit a median curb and the car careened across the roadway before he regained control. Even though it was past midnight, I insisted that I would rather walk. I found a place to rest until the next morning.

      After a few more rides, I reached the Albuquerque bus station. When my parents met me there, I had already claimed my luggage and changed into fresh clothes. I did my best to disguise the fact that I was dead tired after more than two days.      

      Memories of going to the March became the link between my childhood and all the remarkable and unexpected things that later happened to me as an adult.  Yet, after spending decades examining and making sense of my experiences at the March, there are still unanswered questions. If I had been unable to find a ride to the March, would my life have been very different? Why was I so unconcerned about how to return home? Why did I accept a ride from the March to New York, even though I was carrying less than fifty dollars, and my bus ticket was from Indianapolis back to New Mexico? Why didn’t I call my parents to ask them for bus fare to get home? They would surely have sent money – at least after Mom berated me for doing something so stupid. Perhaps I preferred risking my life on an Oklahoma highway than admitting that I was not yet ready to be on my own. And why was I so attracted to SNCC’s worldview, so ready to change the course of my life?

      My March memories began to make more sense as I came to see them through a historical lens. At the March, I didn’t yet have historians’ habits. I didn’t think to write a journal or a letter or even take a snapshot to preserve the details of the experience. My memories of that special day are small pillars to carry the weight I later placed on them. Most of what I now know about the March comes from research, not memory, but history and autobiographies are edited versions of the past that always leave unanswered questions. When people ask me how did it feel to be at the March, I find it hard to give an answer that matches their expectations. I admit how little I remember but have a lot to say about what I would later learn.

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