A little over fifty years ago, tens of thousands gathered in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And I was…at Disneyland. It was a few weeks after my sixth birthday, and my mother had taken me on an overnight adventure, just the two of us making the 45-minute trip on the Santa Ana Freeway to Anaheim, where we would spend the day with Mickey and the night at the Candy Cane Inn just across the street. Tom Sawyer Island and the Mark Twain Riverboat aside, that’s pretty much as far as one could be from the Deep South without actually leaving the confines of the United States. Sure, I bet some people gave us funny looks and stepped in front of us, just like they still do today, but there were no “Whites Only” signs, thank goodness. The worst thing that happened to me was that witch who pops out at you on the Snow White ride, offering the poisoned apple. To this day, I’ve steered clear of her.
Photographs show me at the top of Main Street USA in a pretty dress with puffy petticoat, my hair braided and crossed in a “crown” over my head, Swiss maiden style. It wasn’t until years later that my mother, now deceased, explained to me that on occasions like these, she made sure that she and I both wore fancy clothes so that the white people would know that we were as good as they were, if not better. At 90, my father is still the same way.
I remember that day not so much because of Tinkerbell and company, but rather the fact that my father drove out in the afternoon ostensibly to surprise me for dinner. In those days, the lines at Disneyland were nothing like they are today: after four hours or so, we had done all there was for a six-year-old to do. My mother and I headed over to the Candy Cane and checked in. A short time later, there was a knock at the door, and I remember my own delight at seeing my father. He told me that because he missed me so much, he had come to have dinner with us; but first, he and my mother wanted to watch something on TV.
Thinking back, what I see now, very clearly in my mind’s eye, are my parents sitting together at the edge of one of the two queen beds in the room as they watched Martin Luther King, Jr. describe his dream to them and to millions of Americans. I don’t know if there were tears in their eyes, but I imagine so. Anyone who has heard those words knows how inspiring and powerful they had to have been that Wednesday afternoon, when they were spoken for the very first time. I get all choked up just thinking about it.
With the exception of the footage that aired as we celebrated the anniversary of the march, and perhaps in documentaries, the black and white images that I watched with my parents over the course of that extraordinary event are not as clear. What I recall more is the sensation: of motion, of moving forward, quite literally to the Promised Land. Perhaps it was the word “march” that made such an impression on my young mind, but seeing all of those people, black and white, chanting, singing and carrying signs, I felt distinctly that we as a country had to be going somewhere, and it would to be better than where we were before. Hope was in the air.
It bothers me that so many kids have become complacent, particularly with racial discrimination and injustice that still exist. But why shouldn’t they? The momentum has all but dissipated and the march written off as something that happened a long, long time ago. Those who are lucky enough to have a wealth of opportunities feel that they are already where they should be; and many who continue to struggle at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder believe that’s where they’ll stay. Hope is in short supply, and the magic kingdom that Reverend King spoke of – you know, the place where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but “by the content of their character” – remains just that: the stuff of dreams.
The activities commemorating last year’s anniversary of the march jogged the memories of many of my generation and older, but, I’m afraid, they were largely dismissed by our children. While I would not wish those days upon them, it’s a shame that they didn’t have the opportunity to experience the events of the Civil Rights Movement as they unfolded. They should have watched them with their parents. They would have felt the motion.