WASHINGTON -- The hottest accessory at the "Let Freedom Ring" ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a yellowed button from the original march, worn by a man or woman with white hair.
Paul Stanley, 70, wore a baseball cap's worth of old buttons, as well as ones from earlier commemorations of the 1963 march, which he attended as a young man. "I grew up here when Washington, D.C., was Jim Crow," he said.
He couldn't go into restaurants back then, and if he wanted to buy food from one he had to eat it outside, he recalled. Thanks to the civil-rights movement, he can can go into the restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters that he was not able to enter in some places in the South as late as 1968, he said, ticking off the improvements. As importantly, "We're able to speak our minds."
But there was still work to do when it came to the jobs, education, and voting-rights outlook, he said. "We're only halfway there." That's why he appreciated Barack Obama's political speech at the rally so much. "I'm very happy today to see our black president and the speech he made," said Stanley, now a resident of Bethesda, Maryland.
In interview after interview, it was clear: For the former marchers, Obama wasn't just a manifestation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream -- he was someone they were looking to to go after the unfinished parts of it, from jobs to education to preserving the voting rights they'd fought so hard for during their salad days. "So much progress was made as far as voting rights. I remember my mom and dad not being able to vote," recalled Beverly Johnson, 65, an administrative coordinator at a professional association in Washington, who came to the march at the age of 15 with a group of friends. "It breaks my heart that so much is going on now trying to move backwards in voting rights."
When it comes to the issues that remain, "the president, he probably addressed them better than anyone else," said Roland Johnson, 74, a former marcher, Peace Corps volunteer, and retired philanthropic professional from Philadelphia. Like Stanley, he found Obama's remarks the highlight of the day, which otherwise had too much about King and "the Dream" and too little about jobs and freedom for his taste.
There was a bit of a tendentious debate around the commemoration over whether or not King was engaged in a fundamentally conservative project, as National Review put it, or was somehow secretly a conservative. Maybe the National Review writers should have talked to more of the former marchers.
The ones who returned Wednesday were not conservatives; black and white alike, they were the sort of people political strategists these days call the Democratic base, even if Democrats were not all on their side back in the day. And they were grateful that Obama's speech had injected a bit of political spice into what was otherwise a fairly depoliticized commemoration of their highly political fight for freedom.
It wasn't an accident that the vast majority of the merchandise for sale along the way to the rally site on the National Mall wove together images of King and America's 44th president.
In fact, if you want a reason every single Republican leader asked to be part of the commemoration line-up turned down the opportunity to stand up for civil rights in front of a giant statue of Lincoln in favor of marking the anniversary in restricted settings before ideological compatriots, or not at all, there's your answer. The men and women Obama commemorated as "men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame" and "ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV" today are no more conservative today than they were in 1963. They've just swapped their formal protest suits and dresses for T-shirts and jeans.
"We were dressed a little different" then, said Nadine Whittington, 80, a 50-year resident of D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood and march veteran, because "there was pressure" to look proper. "This is a little more casual," she said, pointing to her red sweat pants. She wore a matching "Free D.C." red baseball cap in support of D.C. statehood, her latest cause.
The 1963 march was a revelation for her, black and white standing together, and beyond even that, touching each other, strangers bonding across races, hand-in-hand. "I was born in 1933," she said. "That kind of thing didn't go on a lot. I'll say this, what happened the first time was a real blessing for us .... I'll never forget at the end, how we held hands like that" -- she crossed her arms, extending one hand to each side -- "and sang a song. It was so spiritual."
The Rev. Richard Cox, 79, came down from Philadelphia, where he preaches at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. He stood in the drizzle wearing his minister's collar, a large turquoise ring, and a sign that read "1963-2013 Still in Search of Justice," until the letters on the sign bled.
Florence Claggett, 62, came up to him and asked, "Were you here 50 years ago?" When he affirmed so, she exclaimed, "I was too!" At times the event felt like a bit of a reunion for strangers united by their shared role in history. Sadly, the organizers had failed to provide any ribbon or button the original marchers could wear to identify themselves to each other or to those who wanted to honor them.
Claggett, who lived in D.C., was just 13 years old at the time of the march and took a bus downtown with some friends to join it. "I had a marvelous time," she said. "I had no idea of the significance."
"It was a very scary time because of the bias against blacks and of course people were saying there'd be violence at the march," Claggett recalls. She's still here in D.C. today -- "still fighting," and trying to get statehood for the city, equal pay, quality education and access to "fresh foods in the neighborhoods."
Claggett was on the young side for a marcher, but many of her compatriots were not much older or more politically sophisticated than her back in the day. "When I came I was a novice. I really didn't understand," Merlyn Kettering, 71, of Takoma Park, Maryland, said. Raised in Ashland County, Ohio, he'd grown up in a completely white community and came to the march after being challenged and emotionally engaged by a Southern Christian Leadership Conference exercise during an ecumenical conference earlier in August 1963. At the march, "I felt the agony for the first time of a people who didn't know the same liberty and justice for all," he said, "and I began to feel that sense of urgency." From the pacifist Church of the Brethren, he was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, joining the Peace Corps after King and Bobby Kennedy were shot. He wound up stationed in Nigeria and eventually married in Jamaica, embarking on a life in a "biracial, bi-cultural relationship."
"Today was much more emotional for me because I understand now," he said. "Today was very powerful for me. When I first came I did not know that it would be."
Mary Shearard, 67, of Northeast Washington, brought along a plastic sleeve with a news picture of herself at the original march. "I had just graduated from high school that summer," she recalled, pointing at her younger, hat-wearing self in the image. She marched with her father's D.C. union, Local 209, ending up at the Reflecting Pool. "It's a bit of an inspiration to see that we can bring so many people together peacefully yet again," she said. "There was so much fear this was going to turn into a riot [in 1963]. The city was literally surrounded."
Not everyone had a souvenir they could trot out. Beverly Johnson had had one of the best seats in the house for the speeches that day: "I remember all the excitement, the people. We actually sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial," she said. But all she has to commemorate her historic perch are her memories. "In those days, we couldn't afford cameras, so we don't have pictures of ourselves in those special moments."
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