I wrote this blog post four years ago today for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I am putting it up again here because 4 years on, the issues raised 54 years ago today, and again 4 years ago today, are even more important on this day.
August 28, 1963 - I was three days into my 10th year on the planet. Today I am three days into my 60th. Saturday I spent several hours watching the commemoration of the March on Washington, the high point of which was the brief speech made by my friend and hero, Dr. C.T. Viven.
CT, the man who was punched in the face by a redneck Alabama sheriff
CT, the man I met in New Orleans after Katrina, seeking to develop an organization to assist churches in the rubber meets the road work of rebuilding the Crescent City.
CT, who looked at me with a fatherly sense of pride when I told him the story of how my daughter had recently blessed me with the compliment that the most important thing I had taught her was that, "people are awesome!"
CT, who has a heart bigger than anybody I have ever known and a brain, a wit, and a style to match.
This is my direct connection to that day on the mall 50 years ago, something that I watched on Walter Cronkite on the big black and white TV in the living room of our little house in Lake Worth Florida. A South Florida Cracker town where the black kids and the white kids weren't allowed to swim in the same surf, or play on the same side of the beach, and where, when I rode with my dad to drop off the woman who sometimes cleaned out house and took care of me, we had to slide up a block away from the run down "colored" section of town and let her out of the car.
Something in that moment on the mall 50 years ago radicalized my little 9 year old spirit and has stayed with me, transforming my perspective, and my actions, on an almost daily basis for the fifty years since.
On Sunday, at Glide Church in San Francisco, we celebrated that 50 year legacy of the March, and the 107 year legacy of Mother Ruth Villa Jones. As we spoke and sang and remembered, I thought about how amazing her life must have been. She was already nearly my age now, no doubt assuming that her life was mostly behind her when that March on Washington took place and fundamentally changed the landscape of the country. When that watershed of justice that we always celebrate when we're thinking and talking, preaching and singing about the justice Amos called for actually peeked through the mystery and entered the believable possible.Mother Ruth's grandparents were slaves.
Slaves! Human beings owned by other human beings and subjected to abuse and cruelty that we still can't honestly imagine.
When I was in college, at a "Christian" school, in 1973, the black students held a chapel in which they spoke of their heritage and history as slaves and offered a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation to those of us whose heritage of slavery was radically different from theirs. I remember a student in my dorm speaking about the event later. He arrogantly, and angrily, proclaimed his innocence of any historical wounding and his annoyance at the assumption that he was in need of forgiveness. "I didn't have slaves. I never owned anyone. They have as many rights as I do, if not more.!"
This... just ten years after the march for freedom and justice that we commemorate today. I was, and am, completely incapable of understanding that willful arrogance and ignorance from someone who claims to be both intelligent and spiritual, then or now. How is it possible to read history, to listen to people who have lived with the scars of a legacy of human slavery (and its ugly aftermath) - people who have known family that were enslaved - and still lack the understanding and empathy needed to place themselves in the shoes of a people whose history, and a very short history at that, was so skewed.
My grandmother died 22 years ago. She was 101, had moved here from Ireland and danced on Broadway for George M. Cohen. Nanny's life still radically colors who I am, and who I still, at 60, hope to be. She colors my daughter's sense of self and most likely will have a similar effect on my granddaughter (her great great grandchild). How can it be any different for the people that I know personally whose grandparents were kidnapped from their families and homes, loaded on ships like logs of wood and bales of hay and bought and sold like cattle in a land that was supposedly established on the highest principles of liberty and freedom.
It's been fifty years since I first heard that speech from Dr. King. Fifty years since I grew up in a big white Baptist church (both racially and architecturally) in South Florida where I heard men who considered themselves christian leaders spoke of King as a communist agitator and not a brother in Christ.
Fifty years since I went to a Lake Worth beach where white kids could swim on one side of the pier and black kids could only swim on the other.
Fifty years since I went to my Uncle's Georgia farm and saw the tiny shack (a shack that is burned in my memory as the slave quarters) where my aunt's maid lived with her family down a dirt road about 100 yards from the big beautiful farmhouse we were visiting in.
Fifty years since my dad told me the stories of his friend MC, the little black kid who my dad considered his closest friend, despite the fact that pictures from those days so clearly and unblinkingly reveal the disparity between their lives and culture. A disparity that I am sure my father as a boy, or a man, never stopped to consider.
Who are we today now that Barrack Obama is president? Fifty years after The March On Washington?
What they said on Sunday at Glide feels like about as good a declaration as anything.
"There is no finishing line... We must keep moving on."
Or in the words of the old spiritual, used so perfectly as a theme of the civil rights movement, "Ain't nobody gonna turn me round... Gonna keep on a walkin, keep on a talkin..."