Fifty years ago today, the grand event for justice—“the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” as Dr. King averred—that was the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place not too far from where I presently sit. My grandmother, then Donna M. Wilkinson, was my age: 23. Another 23-year-old was there, SNCC leader John Lewis. He spoke with passion, vigor and a moral seriousness—with a righteous impatience with the status quo.
As a 23-year-old myself, scarcely a bone in my body is not moved, quickened—hardly a cell in my body is not intensely warmed—by the video footage, memorials and recounting of that world historic day by those who were there, those who have made the chronicling of the movement their life’s work, and those others who, having been influenced by the courage, tenacity and passion of the movement builders and leaders, offer their highest encomia and appreciations.
My grandmother, the aforementioned Donna Wilkinson, related to me that she had no idea of Martin Luther King or his work until this day, some fifty years ago. She was born and raised in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Although discrimination was not uncommon here, she, very fortunately, was not subject to the same explicit, blustering violent expressions of racism visited on so many of her Sable brothers and sisters in the South. Thus, for her, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was her first real introduction to the cause and its leaders, a grand invitation to all those who make justice, freedom and equality their charge.
My grandmother, a young 23-year-old mother, was not able, owing to the exigencies of motherhood, to participate in the movement. And, as I reiterate, she was not subject to the fierce Jim and Jane Crow so common in the South. She could vote, she served her country in the Navy. She, and others I’m sure—in an admission I must concede with biting irony, and very grudgingly—was spared, blessed, favored (by God? the universe?) in this regard.
However, it wasn’t because racism was overcome in the mid-Atlantic region. She might have easily been the object of racist persecution had she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Be that as it may…
The more I read, study, watch and reflect on the proceedings of the that day—and the work that lead thereto—the indefatigable passion, energy and effort to struggle for something so profoundly human and moral as civil and social rights, the more I feel myself—my very life, the blessings and opportunities which I have enjoyed—implicated in that struggle, in that day.
There is a tradition of Black struggle that has made possible so much of what I take for granted. And while we are nowhere near completing the work—and in any event, the work is ongoing and never really “complete,” is it?—I cannot be anything but emboldened, empowered and enthused about the purpose of the best of the Black struggle for freedom—a struggle chiefly moral, and never simply restricted to African phenotype—and its ramifications for my past, present and future, and the nation’s and the world’s.
I am the heir (and not only me)—and proudly proclaim it—of a precious movement, conversation, struggle and revolution about the most important consideration all human beings will ever face: that query of introspection What kind of human being will I be?
The tradition forged by Black people in this country—and not merely Black people, but Indigenous peoples, women, Latinas and Latinos, Asian-Americans and Jews and Whites, and many anonymous others—is one integrally ethical, proclaiming the miracle of the pricelessness and equality of all human beings. It is a tradition dedicated to meliorism—to the idea and life ethic that positive social change, reform and revolution can and must be effected by human beings.
It is the tradition that has produced the Richard Allens, David Walkers, Sojourner Truths, Harriet Tubmans, Phyllis Wheatleys, Frederick Douglasses, Jarena Lees, Harriet Ann Jacobs’, Jupiter Hammons, Garrisons, Wilberforces, William Stills, Henry Box Browns, WEB Du Bois’, Anna Julia Coopers, Mary Jane Pattersons, Kings, Xs, Fannie Lou Hamers, Ella Bakers and so many, many more.
It is a tradition whose mantle we all must assume, if we are to take seriously the unyielding imperative of living examined lives—cognizant that the unexamined life, as the ancient Sage once told us, is unfit for the human—that the compassionate heart—embodied in sacred and secular traditions the world over—is necessary, and that action, practice and struggle are indispensable to the human adventure, as is the refining of the mind.
It is a fundamentally human tradition, one that adumbrates and espies—with the vigor of prophetic, utopian rupture—a freer human being, more just sociopolitical arrangements, a deeper democratic commitment, and an unshakable solidarity of brothers and sisters caring for each other and the world they inhabit.
It is, for all this, intensely (though not in every inflection and expression) idealistic. It may fall on cynical ears a dead tradition, and as so much poetry as to be vacuous conceit. But as the Biblical admonishment instructs us—all of us—“where there is no vision, the people perish.” Dreamers, visionaries, planners, believers must continue to project that better time and place. There is no question that unless we can develop the moral faculty of critical and creative imagination, we jeopardize the possibility of social improvement, and we do so at our peril.
The voices party to this grand tradition don’t always agree. Univocality is not its mainstay. They don’t always share the same religious, political or economic commitments. However, they fundamentally believe in the human being, in the ethical impulse that—whether a divine gift, or sociogenic emergence—reposes somewhere in the depths of the human personality, and that, together, pace our sundry variances, we can and must make better the condition of our lives. Because, as King reminds us, “we must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.”