There were more than 50 of us scrambling around the Stop and Shop parking lot Friday night waiting for a bus to Washington DC for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech by the time the store manager came outside.
For whatever reason, he thought I might be able to give him the scoop. I’m assuming it’s because I was armed with a big, expensive and official-looking video camera but maybe it’s worth noting that I was also one of the few white people there?
Most were from the Providence NAACP, who invited the larger community to join them and other New England chapters in a caravan of buses down the I-95 corridor to mark the moment so often recalled as a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.
Our mission was part celebration of this historic occasion, but it was also a call to action. Maybe as many as 100,000 of us would come from all over the country to meet on the Mall, where Martin Luther King gave his inspiring “I have a dream” speech 50 years ago this Wednesday. Trayvon Martin has become the face of the modern civil rights movement more so than Barack Obama.
Our bus – one of those private sector tour buses that bring people to and from the casinos and Newport and elsewhere – fit all 54 of us somewhat uncomfortably. Only one person in addition to our driver didn’t have to share a seat. There was a bathroom in the rear that seasoned bus travelers know to avoid sitting near on long trips.
About half of us were NAACP members. The other half were either unaffiliated activists, interested people and/or members of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats or the local chapter of the International Socialist Organization. I didn’t take an official demographic census, but I think about a dozen of us were white. Six of of the white people on our bus, including me, sat in in three rows of seats together near the front.
I sat with an older white guy named Jay Vasques, who is currently unemployed and works on organizing homeless people in New Bedford, where he lives. Vasques went to college with Lauren Niedel, a member of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats who sat behind us. She sat next to Nancy St. Germain, also a Progressive Democrat who helped the NAACP organize the trip. Sometimes we self-segregate for pretty understandable reasons.
There were several different families on our bus. Joe Buchanan, a one-man grassroots political force from the South Side of Providence, took his grandson. “Yeah, you can ask me some questions,” he said when I asked to interview him. “You might not like some of my answers.” I did like his answers. He told me it didn’t matter so much what happens this weekend but rather what we all do when we get back to Rhode Island.
Pauline Perkins-Moye, of Newport, brought her grandchildren and several of their friends, as well as her 50-year-old son who was born two months after the first speech. “Martin Luther King had a dream and two months later I was born,” he joked, while his mom explained why, being seven months pregnant, she could only be at the first March in spirit.
That was as close as anyone on our bus had been to the first speech. A white guy named Richard from Worcester on the bus behind us was the only one I met on the way down who had. In the Stop and Shop parking lot in Providence he handed out audio copies of King’s speech.
We watched two movies on the way down. ISO members brought a documentary about Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” They also encouraged us to become involved in local labor issues and invited people to a new book club called “Black Liberation and Socialism” that starts Thursday, September 5 at Patrick’s Pub in Providence.
The NAACP showed a powerful documentary called Broken On All Sides, about the American criminal justice system’s institutional bias against African Americans. The movie is closely related to The New Jim Crow, which is both the title of a best selling book about the racial disparity in prison populations and it’s also becoming a catchall expression for the ways in which conservative political policy on crime, education and social investment continue to make racial equality a dream rather than a reality.
The two movies were an interesting juxtaposition as the New Jim Crow would likely be the follow-up chapter to a People’s History. Almost everyone I spoke with on the bus trip down and all weekend long felt that America had done well to institute the easy parts of Martin Luther King’s dream, doing away with bigoted laws and public displays of discrimination. But that a more insidious form of racism has arisen since around the time that Ronald Reagan called ketchup a vegetable and his wife waged a war on drug users.
We pulled into RFK Stadium, the football stadium on the outskirts of the city where the Washington Redskins play, just in time for sunrise. We had been on the bus since about 9 the night before and while few of us got any decent sleep we were all happy to stretch our legs. There were boxes of free t-shirts everywhere and a few food trucks and port-a-johns on the far end of the parking lot, but no sinks or coffee.
In short order most everyone was wearing matching yellow NAACP shirts, had caffeine headaches and bad breath, and this was before our half mile walk to completely overwhelm the local subway on our way into the city. It was a testament to the occasion that our spirits remained so high. One of my favorite parts of the entire trip was when a preacher from Cambridge, Massachusetts started belting out my favorite songs on the Metro.
“People get ready/ There’s a train a’ comin/ Don’t need no ticket/ Just get on board”
Upon arriving downtown Mary Gwam, Leah Williams and I, who met on the bus through Twitter the night before, decided to break off from the group to find some coffee. We stumbled upon a nearby deli that was doing some of
the catering for some of the speakers. There were hundreds of boxes waiting to be filled with sandwiches and chips. We offered to help them do the delivery, but when that didn’t work out we walked the long way to the Mall.
Both of Gwann and Williams live in South Providence and have been active in trying to re-open the Davey Lopes public pool. The right to learn to swim isn’t something that resonates very loudly with white liberals, but it’s a fine example of the nuance of how the New Jim Crow works. The public pools is more than just a place to learn to swim, it effectively serves as summer childcare for working parents in South Providence.
If events on the National Mall such as Saturday’s appear on TV as if the crowd is a single organism acting in unison, from the inside it looks more like chaos. The closer we got to the Mall, the more the crowd size swelled. Soon enough we were inside a human swarm, with people marching and chanting and walking and protesting in every which direction.
Directly outside the gates, all sorts of people shared their message – from Raging Grannies singing anti-war protest songs to raging Christians, likening abortion to genocide and lynchings – with poster-sized pictures. A young man from New York used a megaphone to say, “We don’t need another march, we need a revolution.” Another young man from North Carolina used his megaphone to say, “We are all Trayvon Martin.”
There were as many Trayvon Martin signs and t-shirts around the reflecting pool of the Mall as there were of Martin Luther King or the NAACP. If nothing else, it seems as if the young black man in a hoodie didn’t die in vain. He has become a martyr for the modern civil rights movement.
The closer one got to the Lincoln Memorial, the harder it became to negotiate the crowd. It would be a mistake to think anyone at the event could offer a decent crowd estimate. Those on the inside of this activist organism see only the few hundred people in their immediate vicinity and it’s almost impossible to see or get anywhere else. The Park Service flew over the crowd in helicopters I’m assuming for the purposes of counting and not monitoring the crowd.
By the time the speakers began, I had lost everyone I knew from Rhode Island so I decided to make my way up front to see if my big fancy video camera would allow me to penetrate the police line separating the public from the press, which somewhat fittingly, is located between the people in the crowd and the people with the power.
As you may expect, having a large, expensive-looking video camera and being white at a civil rights rally is every bit as good as having an actual press pass. I walked through security four times. Once I did so just to show a college blogger how it’s done and my grand finale was sneaking by a guard who had just watched me get escorted out only minutes earlier. I did that one just as a joke, which lost all it’s humor when a black man was screamed at by the same Park Service Police officer for doing the same.
Attorney General Eric Holder said he would not be the nation’s top cop and Barack Obama would not be president if it weren’t for Martin Luther King and his dream. And California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said she was at the March on Washington 50 years ago and wondered who at today’s event go on to become the speaker of the House. This is the part of King’s dream that has been realized: in 2013, a black man or a woman can rise to the top.
Al Sharpton, on the other hand, spoke for the people who have not yet realized the dream. And it’s very interesting to note that he parsed it as a class struggle rather than a racial struggle. The New Jim Crow actually targets people of all colors, he seemed to be saying.
50 years ago Dr. King said that America gave blacks a check that bounced in the bank of justice and was returned marked insufficient funds. Well we’ve redeposited the check. But guess what? It bounced again. But when looked at the reason this time it was marked stopped payment.
They had the money to bail out banks. They had the money to bail out major corporations. They had the the money to give tax benefits to the rich. They had the money for the one percent. But when it comes to Head Start, when it comes to municipal workers, when it comes to our teachers, they stopped the check. We gonna make you make the check good or we gonna close down the bank.
Perhaps Congressman John Lewis, of Atlanta, Georgia, is the closest political connection America has to the March on Washington. He was there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when King gave his speech. Politico reports King told Lewis to tone down his rhetoric. 50 years and 40 arrests later, he spoke in very revolutionary terms for a Democratic congressman.
Back in 1963, we hadn’t heard about the internet. But we used what we had to bring about a nonviolent revolution (applause) And I say to all of the young people that you have to push and to pull to make America what America should be for all of us.
I got arrested 40 times during the sixties … Beat and left bloody and unconscious. But I’m not tired, I’m not weary, I’m not prepared to sit down and give up. I am ready to fight and continue to fight, and you must fight.
Many of us were strangers on the way down to DC but by the way back we had become brothers and sisters. We exchanged email addresses and friended each other on Facebook. Led by a woman with the most beautiful voice, we all joined in singing some old protest spirituals together.
“We shall overcome,” we all sang together.