I remember exactly where I was sitting, at the corner of the reflecting pool on that hot August day as the leaders of the civil right movement spoke, singers sang, and the crowd sang along. I was 16 and with a group of friends, one of whom I would marry five years later. I remember the heat. I remember how good the water in the reflecting pool felt on my bare feet. I remember the music. I remember Martin Luther King, Jr’s booming voice. I remember , as we walked to the parade route, watching young people my own age getting off buses from Georgia, from Alabama, from Mississippi, linking arms and singing, the girls in summer dresses, the boys in white shirts. I felt small and insignificant in the face of that strength, and at the same time, I also felt caught up in the joyous power. It seemed, on that day, that right would prevail, that even the most racist person would see the light, would understand King’s dream.
Fifty years later, I see what I couldn’t see then. I look at pictures of those valiant civil rights leaders and see men in suits, but no women as leaders. We all can name them, King, of course, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolf, but even Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer are missing from those pictures. Even though Anna Arnold Hedgemen protested, no women spoke that day at the Lincoln Memorial, even though many, many women worked tirelessly for voter registration, for integrating lunch counters and did much of the necessary clerical work that any movement must have done. I hear Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC, (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) saying, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.” Several women, including the singer Lena Horne and Rosa Parks, who had expected to sit with the speakers on that day were escorted off the platform before the speeches began.
I also know that the writer James Baldwin was not asked to speak because he was “too radical,” which I now interpret as “openly homosexual.” Bayard Rustin, who was an activist and strong believer in non-violent action spoke at the end of the march, reading the list of demands, but Rustin, too, was vilified for his sexual orientation.
I have learned that nothing is as simple and as easy as things seemed on the clear August day. Prejudice continues. Young black men are arrested and incarcerated in disproportionate numbers. Women still earn less for equivalent work, and gay and lesbians continue to be discriminated against. What I know now is that we cannot work for civil rights for one group and not for others. We need to work for the rights of all people, and we will continue to need that solidarity that those young people getting off those buses from the south demonstrated, their arms linked, their voices raised.