I missed the historic March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in August 1963. I was on military missions in Vietnam that summer. So I went this year with friends and neighbors to the 50th anniversary march celebration that filled much of the Mall in Washington on Saturday.
At least two other Vietnam veterans were on the bus that departed from Englewood, NJ well before dawn with 50-some community activists organized by the Bergen County NAACP. Others ranged from 98-year-old Mary Shoiket and 73-year-old Melinda Bonner, who each participated in the 1963 march, to young people born long after the tumultuous 1960s.
In Washington, the marchers streamed from rows and rows of buses that pulled into the RFK Stadium parking lots and, in high spirits, began a long walk to the Metro station, whose trains conveyed a growing mass of people of every age and ethnicity that emerged in downtown Washington and converged on the Reflecting Pool area in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
To say this brought back a swirl of memories is an understatement. One of the legacies of the 1963 march was the proliferation of peace marches in Washington to protest the war in Vietnam and subsequent wars waged by the US overseas. I’ve lost count of how many peace marches in Washington I participated in after I got out of the Army.
A major theme of the 2013 March on Washington, which is officially commemorated on Wednesday, is how much still needs to be done to fully bring about the goals of the 1963 march, which focused on key civil rights issues of voting rights and equality in employment for African-Americans.
Few of the signs and speakers on Saturday raised Dr. King’s other major concern of the 1960s: the destructiveness of militarism on American society.
“Wage Peace!” a young woman shouted from the crowd on spying my Veterans for Peace button with that slogan on my hat. It was hard to judge how much that theme was an additional factor in motivating tens of thousands of people to peacefully assemble in the nation’s capitol to express support for Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech.
As many commentators noted in reviewing the legacies of the 1963 march, Dr. King’s full-throated protests of injustices at home and, in later years, in America’s war in Vietnam are generally reduced in the media to a few visionary phrases from one portion of his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
I never heard Dr. King’s words until long after I saw injustices that he was calling out.
The peaceful scene on the Mall in Washington on Saturday, and in recollections of the march in 1963, contrasted vividly with my memories of nonviolent Buddhist marchers confronted in Vietnam by armed soldiers—an army that the US military supplied, trained and supported in violently attacking fellow Vietnamese.
My enduring memory of Washington in 1963 was witnessing, as a recently returned war veteran, the public outpouring of shock and grief in the streets around the White House after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November—just days after the South Vietnamese president that Kennedy had supported was killed by South Vietnamese military leaders that our military mission had trained.
Barely a year later, I was stationed at an Army base in Alabama not far from the Selma-to-Montgomery voters-rights march route that became infamous when state police attacked nonviolent marchers, Klan members shot and killed a woman assisting marchers, and the US military was ordered to protect the civil rights demonstrators.
Behind the scenes of armed white men intent on blocking black men and women from registering to vote, another drama of historic dimensions was playing out. As Army units at Ft. Rucker, Alabama, were preparing fleets of helicopters for a massive invasion of combat-trained troops to greatly expand the war in Vietnam, a soft-spoken college professor teaching a course in psychology on base made the biggest impression on me.
Introducing himself to a classroom full of soldiers, the professor said he’d returned from a well-known university in the North to teach at a state college in Alabama. The reason, he said, was to help change minds of his fellow Southerners at a crucial point in American history. It was, I thought at the time—and still do—the most courageous thing I’d seen in my military experiences.
So I was especially glad to see many folks wearing teachers’ union and college group t-shirts and brandishing educational signs among the marchers in Washington this weekend.
America has not fared well in our violent tradition of arming, training and supplying armies around the world—from Vietnam to Afghanistan, Iraq to Egypt and elsewhere. But our nation over the past half-century made a great sea change in many areas of life at home, thanks to preachers and teachers. And the civil rights and fellow civic movements that brought this about didn’t fire a shot.
“We must not forget that Dr. King stood before and with thousands, the people who made the mighty movement what it was … they provided the foot soldiers of the freedom army,” civil rights veteran Julian Bond told the crowd on Saturday.
“They shared with King an abiding faith in America. They walked in dignity rather than ride in shame. They faced bombs in Birmingham and mobs in Mississippi. … They marched, and they organized. Remember, Dr. King didn’t march from Selma to Montgomery by himself. He didn’t speak to an empty field at the March on Washington. There were thousands marching with him and before him, and thousands more who did the dirty work that preceded the triumphal march. The successful strategies of the modern movement were litigation, organization, mobilization and coalition—all aimed at creating a national constituency for civil rights.”
Along with a string of other noted speakers, Attorney General Eric Holder exhorted the crowd to continue on this course: “As we gather today, 50 years later, their march is now our march, and it must go on. And our focus has broadened to include the cause of women, of Latinos, of Asian Americans, of lesbians, of gays, of people with disabilities, and of countless others across this great country who still yearn for equality, opportunity and fair treatment.”
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