Emotions ran high yesterday on the historic 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The speeches were inspiring, the mood reflective of progress made and yet to be accomplished. Nearly everyone I know my age or older who heard Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on August 28, 1963 is able to recall where they were at that hour on that day. It is a moment etched into our American heritage. We recall not only because of the words that were spoken in front of that massive crowd in Washington, D.C. but also because we now see that the events of that day were catalysts to major changes in the race relations in our society. No one can deny and many speakers yesterday recounted that race relations have improved markedly since that time. So why am I so sadly mulling over the stories of women of that day and time?
I was moved by an article in The Washington Post that pointedly noted that women who were activists in the civil rights movement were kept off the official program. When the women protested the slight, a flowery “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” was added and they were assigned the supporting role of walking alongside the wives of civil rights leaders. William Jones, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of the recently published book The March on Washington wrote that as the civil rights movement gained momentum, the president of the National Council of Negro Women, Dorothy Height, and other high-profile women leaders were increasingly shunted aside by overt acts of sexism. Only as a result of fiery insistence was a woman allowed a spot as a speaker at the event. What is that about? Was there a perception that we could only lift up one group at time and that equal rights for one group meant keeping down another? Is that perception pervasive today?
I am reminded of my Aunt Betty’s story that I wrote about previously. She, a white young suburban mother was so inspired and moved to be part of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. So inspired and moved that when she told the story some 40 years later, she still had a glitter in her 80 plus year old eyes. At the end of a week of marches and speeches and grass-roots activism that clearly fed her soul, she recounted how spirits were high on the plane ride home. Each member of the group took a turn standing and reflecting what the movement meant to them and telling how they were going to keep the fire burning when they got back home. When it was Aunt Betty’s turn, she stood and said how grateful she was for the opportunity to meet people who cared about the country and were committed to work for change. She ended her short soliloquy by pumping her hand in the air and proclaiming, “Next up, women’s rights!”
Her old parched lips pursed in sad reflection and her eyes dropped when she relayed the response she received: “the plane fell utterly silent.”
Life is not a zero sum game. Equal rights for all would bring us all up and take nothing away from anyone. Let us not be silent.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.