Fifty years ago almost to the day, my mother was 15 and an active member of the NAACP Youth Council. She desperately wanted to travel to DC with the group to march for civil rights and to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak.
My family lived in Southern Maryland with colored and whites only signs. My grandfather was the head cook at a restaurant at which his family could not dine. My grandmother was haunted by the vivid television images of police dogs tearing at the flesh of college students and firehoses blasting them down southern city streets. What frightened her most was the fact that her teenage daughter wanted to be in the thick of it.
Last week my mother laughed as she shared that she told my grandfather, “we’re gonna come sit-in at your restaurant.” She imitated his voice: “Noooo, you cain’t do that!” She was just kidding because The Open Hearth was too small a restaurant; her group only targeted larger establishments.
Although she has told me bits over the years, I regret that this is the first time that I’ve asked for the whole story of when her dad took her to the March on Washington. She has forgotten most of the details but I recorded what she could recall.
My grandmother had already said no to going with her group. My mom was trying to get my grandfather to talk my grandmother into it. He said no. Just when she thought all was lost, he told her he would take off from work and take her.
“This was big. He never took off.”
My Great Aunt, affectionately known as Sister, decided to go with them.
Although she could not remember the ride to DC or back home, these are my mom’s memories.
The city was on lock-down; they expected trouble. It was hot, not oppressively so, but warm. They walked for some time to get to the Reflecting Pool. There were large groups walking, many wearing “bib jeans” or overalls.
“They looked funny to me. I don’t know if they were farmers or sanitation workers, but I hadn’t seen anyone dressed that way.”
She saw Little Stevie Wonder and Peter, Paul and Mary nearby in the crowd. Because she couldn’t see, my grandfather put her on his shoulders. The crowd was excited and resolute, energized by his words. MLK looked like a speck but she could hear him. She, Grand dad and Sister held hands. I asked if she could remember their faces while he spoke, she said they were somber and reflective.
“People around me seemed much older but they could have been in their twenties.”
She hoped to see her group, but did not. They bought a lapel pin that was MLK’s face which she lost a decade ago at a 40th anniversary celebration of the March.
When I asked my grandmother what she could remember, she remarked that she was anxious. She was glad to have them home and happy that they had a good time. She said there were no incidents and the crowd was orderly and that made her happy as well.
I asked my mom if she knew or could sense how huge an event it was at that time. She said yes and no.
What do any of us know at 15.