Sunday, February 12, 2017

Essay #6: Marches, part 3

Fall Mobilization, 1965; me on left, and Jack behind.
Of course, we are smoking. Everyone did.
            Political marches and demonstrations are exhilarating. Being among a group of people who agree on an issue, even if you don’t know all or any of them, is exciting. I suppose those who disagree with us might think we are like a mob – but we are not dangerous. We are not threatening to harm anyone. I personally don’t like the current group of young men (I think they are all men) who call themselves the Black Bloc, wear masks to cover their faces, and throw rocks at stores and offices. They’re not changing anyone’s mind, they’re not making an argument. Perhaps they think they’re being revolutionary. They’re not.
            My first big protest, even before I joined that picket line in October 1963, was the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August that year. You know the one, where Martin Luther King made his “I Have a Dream” speech. There were lots more speeches that day. People were mostly worried about how radical John Lewis, representing SNCC, was going to be. A recent history of the March on Washington and the movement that preceded it (The March on Washington, by William P. Jones. 2013) says few knew about the intense debate over what Lewis would say, but I was aware of it, and I was hardly close to any of the march’s organizers.
            One of my co-workers and I met and mingled with the crowds streaming along Independence Avenue toward the Lincoln Memorial. (My roommate did not come along; she’d heard rumors of rampant burglaries while residents were out being goody-goody. I thought that was ridiculous, and that was no uptick in crime that day.)
            Walking along, we met a teenage African-American girl (white liberals still said Negro in those days) from North Carolina who’d come up on a bus. I felt so tolerant, proving, I thought, I wasn’t one of those hateful, bigoted white people in the South. It was exciting being among so many peaceful people for such a pure cause. It was hot, and toward the end of the afternoon, I decided it was time to go. The speeches were too speechifying. My co-worker had left, the teenager had found the rest of her bus mates. I was nearing the trees on the north side of the Mall when Martin Luther King’s voice  stopped me. It was more the cadence than the words that stopped me at first, but then I focused on his words: 
“... one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood....” 
I stopped under the trees and stayed to the very end of his speech, 
“We will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.'”
That speech has been replayed so often that it’s hard to disentangle memory from its reinforcement, but I know the thrill I feel now is what I felt then. What he wanted was what I wanted. Harmony, friendship, unity. What I feel I’ve been searching for all my life.
            Antiwar marches were something else altogether. I had been reading about Vietnam in the papers since 1962. What did I know about Vietnam? Well, my seventh-grade got a weekly newsmagazine for schoolchildren, and in the fall of 1954 the two lead stories were Brown v. Board of Education, and the division of Vietnam into two countries after the end of French occupation. I remember reading about Catholics fleeing the Communists in North Vietnam, and as a red-diaper baby, I wondered why people would be fleeing Communists. “Vietnam” must have stuck in my head, because when I dropped out of college in Washington, D.C., in 1962 and was reading the Washington Post, I noticed news stories about Vietnam and its neighbor Laos, and kept on reading. 
            1965 saw the first big demonstrations against the Vietnam War. There was the Spring Mobilization in Washington, the Fall Mobilization in New York. In the spring we rode down to Washington with friends and stayed at an apartment my college roommate found for us. On a sunny day, we gathered in front of the White House and walked back and forth. As more and more people joined in, were there police guiding us further along Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Old Executive Office Building? I don’t think so. What I do remember was our starting to move down 17th Street and then turning east.
            Our goal was to encircle the White House. The only official presence was Park Rangers, who patrolled the environs of the White House. The heavy security now just didn’t exist. Only two or three Park Rangers tried to halt us and point us further south, but there were so many of us. (25,000 was one later estimate.) We formed a long horizontal line, and as the Park Rangers moved to one end to block us, we surged forward at the other end. And as they rushed toward our end of the line, the other end surged forward. In this flanking maneuver, we managed to get almost all the way across the South Lawn. I loved the feeling of outsmarting the authorities. It felt revolutionary – and without guns.
            In the fall, there was a big march down Fifth Avenue. Jack was a copy boy at the (Dorothy Schiff/pre-Murdoch) New York Post. One of his fellow copy boys belonged to some Trotskyist sect (I think it was Youth Against War and Fascism), which was one of the organizers of the fall march. He prevailed upon Jack to be a marshal, too. Marshals were supposed to keep marchers in line, tell them when to stop, when to go.  Although we both instinctively resisted being in a position of telling other people what to do, being a marshal meant we got to wear armbands; we’d walk along the outside of the march; we wouldn’t be hemmed in the middle of the crowd or behind or in front of a sign we might not agree with. We didn’t yet have a coterie of compatriots to march with, though we probably met friends at a bar afterwards. We were always ending up at bar in those days.
Marching, to be continued.

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