Those Who Marched


We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

I talked to an elementary school teacher about it, today, and I noticed myself falling into a few mental traps. Nothing excites me more than a mental trap foreseen and avoided, so I thought I’d spend a little time talking about the March and what it means to me.

It’s easy to think of it as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s day; in fact, you’ll hear plenty of people talking about the 28th as the 50th anniversary of the I Have a Dream speech.

Dr. King was an amazing man, and the speech was an amazing speech; it makes sense that we remember him and his words, 50 years later. But it is a trap to think his speech was the most important act of the day.

I think it is more important to remember 250,000 others: the people who were there that day; the people who risked violence but did not become violent; the people who stood in the heat, in crowds, and could not see the podium; the people who, by watching became participants; the people who made 80,000 box lunches; the people who organized, who set up chairs and distributed water and calmed officials; the people who gained no recognition and expected to gain no recognition and have since faded entirely from history.

Dr. King had a strength of faith that carried him through the tempests the South invoked over him; he had an astounding wealth of knowledge and rhetoric that made him a modern-day Moses. When he spoke, people listened — sometimes they spat, and swore, and balled their fists — but they listened.

The March could not have happened without, also, those people for whom rhetoric failed, or whom fame never found — who were readily ignored in their suffering and their passion, but turned up. Their voice could be denied, their pleas could be denied, but there presence was undeniable — and they loaned the strength of that presence to all the speakers there that day.

Part of the genius of the Dream speech is that it was a reminder that when we fight for justice, it is not a fight against America — it is a fight to make America what it has always promised to be. His Dream is a vision of heaven, certainly — but he names it America. It is “deeply rooted in the American dream,” King says. I think that’s because when he uses the word America, he means the constant struggle we make to get there.

He doesn’t ask for legislation. He doesn’t ask for enforcement. Not then; not in that speech. The March was called a farce; a mock-parade of equality that didn’t exist. I believe Dr. King knew full well it was a performance —but how else do we get from here to the promised land, but by each of us — ignorant, unknown, forgotten us — performing the acts of angels?

Nobody else is going to.

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