Marching on Washington, 50 years later …
The following is an opinion piece published Aug. 13, 2013 in The Swarthmorean newspaper.
The thrill of returning to Washington 50 years later for the anniversary of The March on Washington for Jobs and Peace triggered for me the memory of my first organized march on my hometown April 18, 1959. It was the spring of my sophomore year at the College, a national effort organized from New York by, among others, Bayard Rustin. I considered it to be an attempt to put more action into the Supreme Court's 1954 decision to end segregation (Brown v. Board of Education) in public schools—to make their words that it be undertaken "with all deliberate speed" live a more visible and effective life. To join the march, I helped to organize on our campus. I had to quit the track team and, more damaging, endure anonymous racist hate mail.
Fifty years later I grant that we've seen progress on the racial front and even on the economic front. At the same time I hope that this anniversary event galvanizes national resolve to take us further on the jobs and peace fronts, on crossing the racial divides, on recognizing our common bonds and acting together on them. Many themes were struck in the speeches and the signs the marchers carried this time—access for all to quality education, a renewed war on poverty, protection of voting rights for all, an end to "stand your ground" vigilantism—all these and many other conditions that linger from those of 50 years ago, although altered and even complexified since then.
The numbers of those participating in this year's March are not out as I write, but it looked like 1963 to me when I saw tens of thousands more people on the National Mall than I saw in 1959 (when, by the way, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke). The crowd was colorful and diverse—people returned as I did, as well as young, like my daughter Maria who accompanied me, and babies of every hue. It was a beautiful day that we can only hope helps us find the strength and courage to continue the hard work it takes to fulfill our highest aspirations and become citizens of the nation and the globe acting truly as our best selves.
Maurice Eldridge ’61 is vice president for college and community relations and executive assistant to the president.