Yesterday I was invited to the White House to moderate a panel “Promising Criminal Justice Strategies,” one of seven topics covered under the aegis of “50 Years Forward: A White House Briefing on Ladders of Opportunity.” Today I was at the National Mall all being reminded of, and rekindled by what got me started in the first place. Day one, head; day two, heart.
Yes, I had marched, marched in Philadelphia, in Boston, in Washington and in smaller communities, but not this march. Why (and this is still painful)? Because of my mother. While her taproots go back to abolitionists, and while she in the 1930s went down to help teach/tutor in the all-black Spellman College, and while she instilled incredible values in us (values that had led to marching), she was very worried about my safety. Legitimately so: Freedom riders, civil rights workers, marchers had been killed. But Mom was a good strategist: It was suddenly my job to drive my sister Helen to the University of Rochester (“couldn’t leave father for four days…”), which I did. I was furious. And it still smarts. Never driven her in her first three years there. Why all of a sudden now?
But that whole era branded me: Dr. Martin Luther King, whose hand I came within one inch of shaking, following his speech at Rindge High in Cambridge, Massachusetts, King who propelled me from seminary into community organizing, King who gave me the deep-rooted values that propel and sustain me to this day.
I thought I had gotten to the march early enough, but I was wrong: the gathering in front of the Washington Monument was huge, and everyone had to be funneled through tight security. We hardly moved. I worried that I either might not get in at all, or too late to hear Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter speak.
So I shifted to the handicapped and school line – endless clusters of kids from different schools in the area. I claimed AARP (actually I started a small AARP group to no avail, but we had fun). Then a huge phalanx of kids from the Commodore (?) School with white shirts and ties were given the green light to go in through a narrow portal, but the crush kept breaking up their line and their discipline. So I helped part the sea so they could get through. Toward the end of their line, I said to one of the beleaguered teachers, “I marched 50 years ago” (okay, a little disingenuous, but I WAS marching somewhere), “so how about appointing me a special teacher or volunteer for the day.” “You got it,” she shouted. “You’re in. You’ve already helped. But keep it moving.”
I got in, and found a tree I could lean against about half-way up the reflecting pool, introducing myself and then sitting close to “Jan” and her mother who had marched 50 years before. We shared the tree, which we needed, as it began to drizzle.
Music. Civil rights songs. Gospel. This struck a deep, deep chord, and I was glad, for this is what started it all. Dr. King did not begin with policy: he began with Exodus, escape from slavery, wandering in the desert, a view of the Promised Land. King reached into every living room and every heart. Everyone who has lived has experienced some injustice, some pain, some desert. Yes, extraordinary policy flowed from his work – the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act, – but he didn’t start there. So while we hold the language of policy as precious, we must be unafraid of another glossary, perhaps the oldest, lurking just beneath the surface in each of us. As Congressman John Lewis said, “Martin made a speech, but he delivered a sermon.”
Yes, there was policy in today’s speeches: “A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon” (Clinton); “What’s to be gained if we desegregate the lunch counter, but can’t afford lunch,” (King’s daughter, I believe), and the violence, and sentencing disparities between blacks and whites. But policy didn’t dominate. It was instead “Jan’s” mother humming gospel next to me; it was “Jan” harmonizing alto; it was President Clinton and John Lewis talking about “love that opened the gates of freedom;” it was John Lewis who struck me most deeply, who reminded me of our mantra before we marched: “It is the power to forgive those who would do evil, because we believe that in everyone there is a spark of the divine.” It was “We Shall Overcome.” It was the national anthem.
President Obama brought it home: “The teacher who arrives early and stays late, who buys school supplies out of her own paycheck, she’s marching…the businessman who hires an ex-offender, he’s marching…parents who sacrifice to raise their kids, they’re marching.” Were it policy alone, it would have touched few, allowing us to be dismissive – “that’s Congress’ business, not mine.” Said this way it becomes all of our business, a commission to each of us, leaving none of us off the hook, spurring each of us to “march” in our own way. It was a call to action: “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” reminded Obama.
David Brooks nailed it in his column in the New York Times on Monday the 26th. Reflecting on the march 50 years ago he said that it was “…largely a religious movement. The idea was not only to change society but to work an inner transformation…The idea was to reduce ugliness in the world by reducing ugliness in yourself…” that it “projects good will against ill will. ” From that starting point flowed seismic policy changes in America.
All in all, it was a call to touch, find and elicit the best in each of us. Reflecting on the Selma march, Abraham Heschel, a towering theologian of the 20th century said, “I felt my feet were praying.” That march and this march touched the feet. It touched mine, and they are still sore.
So fortunate to be alive, to continue marching.