In 1960, I watched John Lewis and other black college students march past our Nashville, Tenn., high school on their trips downtown to the sit-ins. In 1963, while I was preparing for my senior year, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Miss. For me, news of the civil rights movement was an unsettling blend of dark tragedies and heady victories.
In our barbershop, black men debated pros and cons of actions of civil-rights leaders. I recall one debate on whether Martin Luther King Jr.’s returning to town was good or bad. And I remember the letdown I felt when arguments focused on: What would the good white people think? But at 16, it was not yet my turn to speak.
I got wind of a “March on Washington.” When I found out the march would be the subject of the next meeting at our Methodist church, I attended, immediately getting caught up in the spirit of the meeting. I can’t recall who spoke, sang or prayed; but I remember they talked about the significance the march, that there would be thousands in attendance, and they wanted youth participation. Someone said they had one seat left on one of the buses. I rushed up, saying I wanted to go. But I was told I needed my parents’ permission, which I thought would be no problem. So I ran home and asked my mom for the OK. She quickly and unequivocally said, “No, you might get hurt.” The decision was final.
What I didn’t understand then was that violence befalling blacks seeking change was common. I didn’t understand that racist violence was capricious and arbitrary. And I didn’t realize I was being protected by generations of black mothers’ wisdom.
The march became the largest peaceful protest in American history. But the glow from the march evaporated when, a few weeks later, four girls were killed in a church bombing. Then President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The following year, I enrolled at the University of Tennessee to major in engineering physics. It was a five-year interdisciplinary program combining a technical education with a heavy offering of liberal arts, basic sciences and languages.
There were only two African-American students in UT’s freshman dorm. Across the hall was another engineering physics major. Early on, he asked if we could study together. I welcomed the opportunity because I loved the idea of team-tackling science and math problems. But after a couple of sessions, it became obvious I was helping him far more than he was me. He asked me about my scholarships; I told him I had none — I was there on educational loans. He expressed shock, and I asked why. He said he was on a full scholarship. It was my turn to be shocked. Here I was, tutoring a white, out-of-state scholarship student while I was on a college loan. At that moment, I lost my “glad to be here” attitude. By my junior year, I had co-founded UT’s Black Student Union, helped elect UT’s first African-American SGA president, and discovered a haven for challenging my limited world view: Knoxville’s Highlander Center.
The 1963 March on Washington called upon the best of the American promise, even as Dr. King noted that though the arc of history is long, it bends toward justice. There was ample contemporary evidence, as global struggles for national liberation resonated with African-American struggles in a mutually reinforcing cadence. Looking back over the span of 50 years, other, yet sinister arcs appear. The Civil Rights Movement occurred during a growing economy for all. From World War II until around 1980, the wealth gap between poorest and richest Americans actually closed. With an expanding economy, closing wealth gap and demands for racial justice, although ever-present reactionary voices were heard, they were unheeded. Today, with the wealth gap expanding and the middle class on the same downward trajectory as the poor, near maniacal fear of the future is a potent weapon in the arsenal of political forces that divide Americans.
The recent march on Washington, called in an era of Supreme Court decisions gutting the Voting Rights Act, a Congress hamstrung by deliberate attempts to fray interests of the people and the presidency, and open economic and political power-plays by billionaires has its own challenges, and it must confront them in a more threatening environment than the 1963 march. That 1963 march carved new ground. The 2013 march can recover now-lost ground while providing a foundation for a future with brighter prospects for low- and moderate-income Americans, overcoming fear and division, jingoism and xenophobia, racism and sexism.
Scott Douglas is executive director of Alabama-based Greater Birmingham Ministries, a multifaith, multiracial organization dedicated to pursuing social justice, helping those in need and building stronger neighborhoods. This article previously appeared in Equal Voice News.