Pledge, more than speeches, made day memorable
By Marsha Joyner
"Fellow Americans, we are gathered here in the largest demonstration in the history of this nation. Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers." '
A. Philip Randolph, speaking in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial
Through the magic of a 10-inch black & white television complete with rabbit ears, my baby girl and I watched and watched and watched: August 28, 1963, Highlands Air Force Base, N.J. I was a brand-new mother. It was one of the first events to be broadcast live around the world, via the newly launched communications satellite Telstar.
As I searched the crowd for my mother, (Elizabeth Murphy Oliver, Afro-American Newspapers editor), we watched the entire historic event unfold. We, all of America, had never seen anything like this.
Blacks from every village and hamlet, big cities and little towns, the light folks and the dark folks, the professors and the students, the dock workers and the Pullman Porters, The United Auto Workers, AFL-CIO, bus after bus, on foot and in cars, gay and straight, men, women, children, black, brown, red, yellow and white, they came, challenging the government of the United States.
No one knew what to expect. Holding onto my six-month-old Marilyn, tears running down my face, I remained glued to the tiny screen.
As the day went on, the speeches sort of ran together. With the most hard-hitting speech of the day, John Lewis, (whose speech made the Catholic archdiocese very uncomfortable), Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins (the acknowledged leader of the civil rights movement), A. Philip Randolph, (the leader of the march). And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech.
More than the speech, it was the delivery. After that day, the mantle of leadership shifted from Wilkins of the NAACP to the young minister King.
Bayard Rustin was named chief coordinator of the march, overcoming some skittish opposition based on his being a pacifist, socialist and homosexual.
You must remember that all of the speeches were making demands. They asked for full civil rights, for racial and social justice, and for a $2 hourly minimum wage, across the board, nationwide.
Looking back, I recall that there were very few women invited to participate except the singers. Yet, in city after city, organization and logistics for the SNCC fell to women.
Fanny Lou Hamer of Mississippi, the woman who changed the face of the Democratic Party forever, had just gone through the worst beating imaginable. She was not even mentioned by any of the speakers.
The words he, him, brothers, brotherhood and all men, ran throughout the speeches. And when King did mention females, it was "little girls and sisters."
Even Coretta Scott King said she watched the march from her hotel room.
"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned; instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked insufficient funds."
The "returned check" part of the speech made headlines. That is what blacks understood. For whites, the press made the "I have a Dream" part what is remembered today.
Of the 50 sentences in the speech, only nine are about the dream. The media have reduced King from an activist, a challenger of the system, to a dreamer ("I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.")
I, for one, resent the mythical King that the establishment has created. Our young people do not know the full measure of the man and the struggle.
All they know is "I have a Dream." This was and is the most insidious public-relations ploy to reduce and diminish the entire movement. They labeled him a communist because he had the gall to challenge the American system. When that did not work, they labeled him a dreamer. Don't get me wrong, I am a dreamer, and dreams have to come first before there is any action. King inspired action; he WAS action.
He was always in motion.
Also very troubling is the media's portrayal of King's "March on Washington," not seeing all of the other people who made it possible.
As a result of the groundwork laid 22 years earlier for the 1941 March on Washington, Randolph was prepared for the leadership role he held in the 1963 March. With Bayard Rustin as the main organizer of the march, Randolph was able to unite the many civil rights groups and union leaders that comprised this national call for masses of people to take action.
The civil rights movement did not begin with King. It began when the first slave refused to be taken alive in chains. What counted most at the Lincoln Memorial was not the speeches, eloquent as they were, but the pledge of a quarter million Americans, black and white, to carry the civil rights revolution into the streets. The task became the fulfillment of the pledge through nonviolent uprisings in hundreds of cities.
You asked if I was there? In the shadow of the Great Emancipator, on that 100th anniversary, every heart and every soul of black America, was there.
I stood in front of my television, raised my hand, took the pledge and continued the revolution in the streets. I have been on the stony road for the past 50 years.
As we commemorate the March on Washington, do I sound upset? I am! As president of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition-Hawai'i, I speak to audiences at every level. They all know "I have a dream" and nothing else. No one ever asks me if the check, which came back marked insufficient funds, has been paid. No one ever asks me if we are still on that lonely island.
Or what does it mean to be the veteran of creative suffering? Absolutely not one person not one person has ever asked me about the "Demands of the March on Washington" as read by Rustin and presented to President John F. Kennedy; or "The Pledge," as read by Randolph, that everyone in attendance vowed to live by.
Does anyone still have a copy of the pledge? No, it is lost in "I have a dream."
Marsha Joyner is president of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition-Hawai'i and a former member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.