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I Was At The March On Washington 50 Years Ago

Remembering what's changed and what hasn't in the last fifty years.

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Via Robert W. Kelley/Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Eighteen years old in August 1963, I had spent the summer after high school graduation working in a factory, commuting by bike the five miles or so from where I was staying with a friend. I don't remember my decision to go to the March, but I do remember my racist aunt calling my mother the night before and trying to get her to stop me. There would be violence, Aunt Betty was sure, and who knows what kind of trouble.

That appeal fell on deaf ears. My mother was a committed advocate of integration, which had been an issue for years in my hometown of New Rochelle, New York. My father, until he died in 1961, was an activist and successful opponent of "blockbusting": the real estate agents' practice of scaring whites to move by implying that the neighborhood was "turning," thus fulfilling their own prophecy and collecting lots of commissions. A Federal court had found two years earlier that the Lincoln School half a mile from our house had been intentionally segregated and eventually ordered remedies. This, people, was hundreds of miles north of the Mason-Dixon line.

I was already dating a "Negro" girl, in the terminology of the time. That wasn't common (nor was it common when we married five years later and remained married until today). I confess it had taken me years to work up the courage to ask her out. She was away that summer and did not go on the March. But surely the sense I had that the March was the right place to be was connected to my romantic interests, if only by worldview.

To get to Washington around 8 a.m. in those days meant a 2 a.m. rising in New Rochelle, no breakfast and a quick dash out of the house grabbing the brown paper lunch bag from the fridge. As the bus arrived in DC, I awakened to a strong fish smell. It was that brown paper bag. It wasn't the one with my lunch. I don't know what my family had for dinner, but I had little money in my pocket (no ATMs then) and was hungry much of the day.

We staged at Thomas Circle and marched from there singing and chanting to the Lincoln Memorial, where I found a good spot on the left of the reflecting pool under the trees. It was a happy but determined crowd. We knew the country was watching. We all dressed reasonably well, the "Negroes" better than the "whites" to look as respectable as possible. We knew there was an absolute need to avoid violence, but the issue never arose in my part of the march. There were just too many of us for anyone to tangle with. The racists, who were many in that day in Washington, stayed home.

Solidarity was the overwhelming feeling. The weather was beautiful and the mood was good, but this was no picnic. It was a determined and disciplined protest. "We Shall Overcome" was the anthem. The New York Times reporter who quoted me in Saturday's paper asked whether I was surprised that celebrities like Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan sang. No, that was no surprise: they had been part of "the movement." The answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind.

A word about the concept of race at the time of the March, which was clearly organized and led by Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. In the terminology of the time, they were "Negroes," not yet blacks or African Americans. The concept of "whites" is likewise an anachronism. I didn't regard myself as part of a white majority then (nor do I really now). The majority then was WASP: white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. As a Jew whose grandparents immigrated from Russia and Russian-occupied Poland, I was in none of those three categories. I was a minority. The barriers to Jews (quotas in universities, prohibitions in clubs and limitations in employment) had only recently come down. The affinity of Jews for the civil rights movement was strong.

The March on Washington was important to us because it was a massive show of support to those who wanted to end segregation, which was more the rule than the exception. It was, we thought, inconsistent with what the marchers understood as the founding creed: all men are created equal (the question of women was posed later). "Jobs and freedom" meant an end to discrimination on the basis of skin color in a society still based on racial separation. It was a radical proposition. I learned only this week that the even the police force in DC was still segregated, with no mixed patrols.

Via Francis Miller/Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Segregation did not end during the March on Washington, as some would like to imagine. The struggle continued even more intensely after August 1963. The bombing of the 16th Street Batist Church in Birmingham came just two weeks or so later. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, who was the son of my high school biology teacher, were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi the next June. I had wanted to spend the summer there but yielded to my mother's entreaties and instead earned some much-needed cash doing research at Yale. New Haven was still mostly segregated, especially schools and housing. I imagine it still is to some extent.

I was sitting down in the street in Cambridge, Maryland in 1964 in support of people trying to end school and housing segregation in what was known then as the Delmarva peninsula (not the Eastern Shore). Delmarva was more akin to the deep South than the northeast when it came to segregation. The state-mobilized National Guard blocked our march there with fixed bayonets, wearing gas masks. The protest leadership decided not to test their will to use them. I've never regretted that.

Once MLK and RFK were murdered in 1968, the civil rights movement lost steam to the anti-Vietnam War movement. I got my first whiff of tear gas protesting at Fort Dix in 1969 and tested the patience of army officers at my physical in 1970. The civil rights movement ended prematurely, befuddled by weakened leadership and dissension within the black community (as it came to be called), some of which toyed with violence while others tried to move further in the direction of economic justice.

Another ten years of MLK leading the challenge to the American reality would have done a lot more good than the lionizing of him now. In housing, schooling and the economy the sharp divides between blacks and whites have not disappeared. Some have even widened. The mechanisms of segregation are no longer overt and direct, but they are effective and persistent. No one can hope to do what Bull Connor and George Wallace did once upon a time, but voter ID laws are just a more sophisticated version of a particular group's desire to keep America in the hands of people who look, behave and vote like them.

Still, things have changed for the better. I can hope that the voter ID laws will mobilize massive minority participation in the states that pass them. I am pleased my children have had opportunities that would have been denied a generation earlier. My wife and I married in the year after the Supreme Court struck down Virginia's prohibition on interracial marriage, though we were unaware of the decision at the time. Today we travel the length and breadth of America without worrying about being lynched. And yes, President Obama embodies the ideals of August 28, 1963.

But we still need to make sure we treat all people as the equals they are. Then is now.

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. A version of this essay originally ran at

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