It was a time of terror and trouble. In the years before and after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 28, 1963, there were repeated and widespread acts of violence. In Birmingham, Alabama, earlier that summer, four young black girls died in a church bombing. Near Philadelphia, Mississippi, less than a year later, three Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) civil rights workers: Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered and buried in an earthen dam.
Nevertheless, on that hot summer day fifty years ago, an estimated 250,000 people came to Washington peacefully from all over America. They gathered downtown in the long Mall between the Capitol and the Potomac River. Around the spire of the Washington Monument, beneath the spreading trees, beside the long, quiet reflecting pool, and as close as they could get to the great, marble-columned memorial containing the statue of Abraham Lincoln, they waited.
It was there, at the broad white steps of the Lincoln Memorial that the leaders of the March had gathered. Among them were A. Philip Randolph, director of the March and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Roy Wilkins – leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Council, a Berlin rabbi of the Hitler era, and Walter Reuther leader of the United Automobile Workers. (UAW).
One by one, leaders exhorted the listening crowd. Randolph described the gathering as "the largest demonstration in the history of this nation." Reuther pictured the March as a "great crusade to mobilize the moral conscience of America."
Rabbi Prinz warned, "bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems," but that "the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most tragic problem is silence." Recalling Nazi Germany, he added: "A great people, which had created a great civilization, had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality, in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of silent onlookers...."
Before and between the speeches there was music. Marian Anderson sang. Mahalia Jackson sang. Finally, it was time for Dr. Martin Luther King to present his historic dream speech.
Beginning by describing the gathering as "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation," Dr. King went on to warn against "drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred." He also warned against allowing "our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence." Instead, he advised "meeting physical force with soul force."
Finally, with his words resonating among the multitudes like great waves of light, Dr. King intoned: "I have a dream.... I have a dream.... I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream...."
In the fifty years that have followed that march, Dr. King's words have echoed everywhere and inspired multitudes. Today, senior citizens who came to the march still remember. One retired octogenarian now living in Florida insists: "It was one of the most important experiences of my life."
But beyond dreams, what is the reality? What can and should be celebrated by the Fiftieth Anniversary March on Washington on August 28, 2013?
On the Mall, not far from the Lincoln Memorial, there is a much-visited granite memorial to Dr. King dedicated in 2011. Yet elsewhere, in places such as Stamford, Florida, and Chicago, Illinois, violence continues. The tragic killings of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Stamford and of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendelton in Chicago engender painful questions.
How can the "soul force" Dr. King recommended as an alternative to "physical violence" be engendered, employed, promoted? If there are answers, who has them?
Amidst contemporary pain and confusion, the dreams of Dr. King linger and inspire. To have a dream and work for it may be the only answer.
Elisabeth Stevens is the author of Ride a Bright and Shining Pony, the story of two young lovers whose lives and destinies are irrevocably and tragically intertwined with the 1963 March on Washington.