WASHINGTON, August 27, 2013 — I was there on the mall 50 years ago tomorrow. And I remember every thrilling moment of this singular event.
For a person to be able to recount the thrill of being there, three things are essential. One, the person has to have been alive on August 28, 1963. Two, he or she had to have been old enough and committed to civil rights causes enough to make the decision to attend. And three, one then needed to go another 50 years without dying. In short it means that you were old enough, in 1963, to attend, and young enough, in 2013, to remember.
As a white person, I had been warned by many of my white friends and acquaintances not to go. There was sure to be an outbreak of violence, they predicted and any nearby white people would become an immediate focus and target.
But this was Martin Luther King, I countered, a prince of peace. The sum and substance of this honorable man’s position is non-violence. His followers are not going to make a mockery of their leader’s message.
But wherever he goes, the naysayers objected, other group leaders worm their way into the demonstration and proceedings in any effort to stoke discord and violence. When it came to marching with civil rights groups or supporting the causes of Martin Luther King, Jr., and civil rights, I was no “Whitey-Come-Lately.”Still, I must admit to fluctuating a few times regarding attending this march. To go or not to go, that was the question.
Then, when that beautiful August 28 morning dawned, I was still faltering. I had to make a decision and it would be one which would be woven into the fabric of my future. Which would I want to say for the rest of my life? “No, I decided not to go because it was reportedly risky” or “I was there that day that history was made.” In the final analysis, I could not not go.
So I left my apartment on Colorado Avenue, jumped into my car, and drove down 13th Street at an easy clip. Not much traffic. Most people had taken the day off. As I got closer and closer to the downtown area, my mind kept telling me, it’s going to be hard to find a parking place.
With all the busses coming in from everywhere and people driving in from all points north, south, east, and west, I might not be able to park at all. I’ll drive around, I thought, and maybe I’ll see a space. If not, then I will have the satisfaction of knowing that at the least I tried. Then I’ll go back home and watch the proceedings on television with a clear conscience.
I found myself looking for a parking place in downtown D.C. Then I spied it — an open parking space right in front of the closed Warner Theatre. Not a legitimate parking space, by any means, its “No-Parking, No-Standing” sign a sure ticket any day of the week.
Except today. I knew the police had more to do today than issue parking tickets.
I pulled into the open space, parked and got out. I wound my way across Pennsylvania Avenue and through a parking lot jammed full of busses with “March On Washington” and “We Shall Overcome” banners boldly displayed.
I felt ashamed that I had for even a moment allowed the warnings of others to cause me to consider not attending this magnificent event.
People have asked me through the years: “Did you know when you heard Dr. King’s speech how great a speech it was?” And I wish I could say, “Oh, yes!” But, truth is, I did not fully realize it at that very moment. After all, the public address system was not the sophisticated technical equipment we enjoy today.
There were tin speakers attached to trees. Every word of a sentence was not crystal clear as it is with today’s amplifiers.
Still, there was something happening at the time. This is not to minimize in anyway the power of the profound speech itself. But a spirit of unity prevailed throughout the ceremonies. There was an “I wouldn’t want to be any place else” feeling; a “this is the moment whose time has come” sensation; and an “I will remember this day forever” conviction. The words, the tone, the unity carried the day. “Let freedom ring.”
The crowd would go on to be estimated at 250,000. I never heard an estimate as to the percentage of white attendees that day. I would calculate five-to-seven percent. The only thing I’m certain of is this: I’m happy that I was one of those who repelled the negativity and attended this historic event which helped set Americans free, all Americans.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.