This column expresses the views of Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum.
The 1963 March on Washington was a once-in-a-lifetime event — and an event for a lifetime.
Today there will be commemorative march — and a march online. It may seem strange to mark the 57th anniversary of the original event. But in this year of reenergized calls for social justice, with assembly, petition and protest once again at the forefront in American life, there may not be any better time to recall the meaning and impact of the first March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — its formal name.
For me, each anniversary of that original recalls personal memories that in truth likely are not all that unique. On Aug. 28 of that year, I was days away from my 13th birthday and mesmerized by the civil rights movement playing out on our only TV, in our living room in South Bend, Ind., and in newspapers and magazines.
That black-and-white screen was the only real path out of my white world — family, friends and nearly everyone I met at school, church or in the neighborhood looked like me. To be sure, even my tiny slice of that world was changing: A Black family would move next door, into the house I grew up in. (We had moved one door north, to the house that had been owned by my grandparents.)
And, to our collective surprise, my septuagenarian grandmother decided to switch to a doctor whose office was one block away, who was Black. No social pioneer, pragmatism won out for her: “His office is just down the street … and he makes house calls,” I recall her saying.
I’m not sure how long I watched TV that day now long ago. CBS is said to have shown speeches at the Lincoln Memorial live throughout the day, and the Paley Center archives note the networks all carried special reports in the evening and for days after. I do know I plopped down again and again in front of the black-and-white images, watching people mostly unknown to me in so many ways, calling for change in their lives — and in mine.
Like much of the covering press is reported to have done, I don’t think I considered the now-revered “I Have a Dream” speech by The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as the singular highlight. Memories have dwindled to bits of recollection here and there. But there are two parts of King’s remarks that have echoed through my years.
The first is something I have remembered more for the thought than for his actual words:
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
I took that as a personal challenge — though the few active steps I took seem feeble now. I lost friends in high school when I invited Black classmates to a pre-prom gathering at my house. In a no-doubt fumbling manner, I reached out to Black schoolmates — gaining some eye-opening conversations.
A decade later, I was a newspaper reporter in Marion, Ind. The newspaper there hired a Black reporter who was doing a good job, but left months later. I asked him why and his answer has justified for me professional diversity efforts ever since: “There’s nobody here who looks like me. It’s just too … lonely.”
I’ve come to understand that he meant not just at the newspaper, but in the places reporters went: City and town halls, school administration buildings, corporate offices and more.
Just nine years later, as Washington editor on USA TODAY’s initial staff, I and colleagues were challenged by founder Al Neuharth’s mandate that at least one photo on all four sections’ front pages needed to be a person of color — with a stated goal of diversifying not just the page, but reporters’ sources, the paper’s content and, not incidentally, the nation’s image of itself.
Today, in my own living room (ironically back in Indiana as a result of COVID-19 social distancing and temporary office closure), history repeats itself. Which brings me to that second moment from the 1963 march — much better remembered, by millions:
“ … and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
All these decades later, the words still ring true in many ways. While there has been progress, jobs and freedom disappointingly remain an aspiration for many. Real equality and respect remain goals, not accomplishments. Freedom does not yet ring in every village and every hamlet.
Once again, today, on an Aug. 28, I will watch the First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly and petition power a national conversation about race, equality, fairness and jobs — and be challenged anew to help in my own ways to bring about that day when we all can shout “Free at last!”
Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum, and president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.