The eagle flies on Friday . . . so sings T-Bone Walker in his song “Stormy Monday.” On August 28, 1963, the eagle landed on a Wednesday in Washington, D.C. From across our country anonymous streams of yearning grew into giant rivers of valor and joy. All were inspired by a charismatic minister who could put together sentences like no one before or since. We witnessed courageous images on our black and white boxes; from Birmingham to Selma, Alabama to buses filled with young freedom loving people riding into the jaws of hatred that lined our southern tier. These innocents were asked to make out their wills before boarding their buses. People died for guaranteed (and withheld) civil rights. Some were killed driving people to and from protests. Others would later be buried in an earthen dam after being detained by police and then tortured and killed by self-righteous guardians of their grey complexion. The world watched, mouths agape, as children were pummeled by high-powered hoses by a man aptly named “Bull” Connor, ironically titled Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham. Mr. Connor also saw fit to let loose vicious dogs on children who had the temerity to ask for their rights as citizens of the United States. Between 1945 and 1962 there were fifty racially motivated unsolved bombings. Birmingham became Bombingham. Since reconstruction and before, there had long been a tradition of hanging “strange fruit” for all the locals to see. (And if you don’t know what that means, make it your business to find out.) Fourteen year-old Emmett Till was killed for merely looking at a white woman. And these are just a few of the atrocities committed in the name of “decency.”
Despite this terror, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers mined profound bravery to fight against darkness threatening to engulf our children and children’s children. African Americans lifted an insidious veil that had darkened both our interior and natural landscapes. Their heroism revealed the light of liberty. Heavy lifting, indeed. It would be misleading to think that racial hatred only breathed in the south. The north harbored its quota of loathing, but this atmosphere was usually more discrete than the maelstrom reverberating south of the Mason Dixon line.
And so the Eagle flew. Its majesty became apparent as 100s of thousands of people left their homes, their jobs, their safety to make known that a change was upon us all. They came to witness the visage of Abraham Lincoln, safely ensconced in his memorial. The country could never go back despite the fevered attempts to snuff out souls who would never surrender.
Many organizations had trumpeted the call to come to Washington, D.C. The night before, nobody knew how many would show up. The day of the march, Congressman John Lewis, then the chair of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and one of the original organizers of the march, was shocked to see how many had responded to destiny. He recalls that when he saw the infinite sea of life, his response was he had to catch up to his people. Catch up. Before the march began that day organizers were lobbying Congress to pass civil rights legislation. A ocean of migrating citizens started to surge towards the Lincoln Memorial. The organizers, seeing this movement, rushed out of Congress to get to the front of the line where they can be pictured leading the march.
A tipping point surfaced. Every racial murder, lynching, rape and bombing had to stop. Horror would be replaced by joy, hope and freedom.
Thirty-four year-old Martin Luther King restated the American Dream that day. His words could not be denied. As his tone dispersed clouds of fear, the world would never be the same. As long as one human being inhales, his words resonate.
I grew up during the 50’s and 60’s. In 1963 I was 15 and desperate to join strangers to help make the invisible visible. I begged my mother to let me go but she refused. She was afraid of violence. The country was told that this march would be aggressive. President Kennedy had the National Guard and other army units on alert on the outskirts of D.C. Having no funds I stayed home. Along with my mother, I watched the event on television. To her credit, her concern immediately disappeared. She instantly understood that an earthquake had occurred and a tsunami of inspiration flooded our essential American dream. Ancient spirituals flew from hallow ground washing away much of the ignorance which fueled hatred. Now the world saw with clear eyes, unfettered by denial.
President Kennedy introduced a Civil Rights Act. After his death, that act was passed due to the goading of a southern President, Lyndon Johnson. The Voting Rights Act shortly followed. Today, the Supreme Court has gutted an important component of that legislation. Several states all over the country are passing laws making it difficult, if not impossible, for minorities and senior citizens to vote. At times it seems we are moving backwards. Wealth has swollen phantom pockets to such an extent that the six Walton children of the founder of Wal-Mart now have more money than the bottom 30% of our population. Injustices accumulate. What would our King say today? I think we know. When he died, Martin Luther King was organizing a “Poor People’s March” on Washington. And although the march did move forward after his assassination and a tent city of 3,000 disenfranchised people camped on the Washington Mall for six weeks, the death of Rev. King cast a shroud of hopelessness over the event.
Even as a child, I knew that Freedom Riders were heroes. It is inconceivable the profound courage that these young people had. Unthinkable or not, we are now the ones who must pick up the dropped lifeless torch and spark a light in a long dark tunnel that has become a barricade to our constitution. It is not only a magnificent speech we remember this week or powerful faces that beamed through glass television screens that late summer day. We remember who we are. With all our faults, pettiness and fear, we are citizens whose path is lit by these words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
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