Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

August 27, 2013

Marching on Washington

By David K. Shipler

            We were the only whites on the bus, my mother and I. And when a matronly woman came down the aisle taking names and addresses to be sure she had a complete roster, we gave her ours and received a surprised, joyous reaction.
            We came from the next town over, Chatham, N.J., known as an all-white community whose real estate agents and homeowners were only just beginning to come under pressure to allow blacks to buy and rent property. There was no covenant, but anti-discrimination housing laws had not yet been passed, and excluding minorities was a legal practice in towns and neighborhoods across the land. My middle-class commuter town had a reputation as a white spot alongside its racially diverse neighbor, Madison, where we had boarded the bus for the March on Washington.
            So when we said, “Chatham,” the astonished attendance-taker beamed and chirped, “Well, welcome, Chatham!” Other passengers turned and gave us the biggest smiles I’ve ever gotten on a bus to anywhere.
            The 50th anniversary of the march, engraved in history largely because of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech, has been an occasion for multitudes of personal recollections. So I might as well add mine.
            I had spent most of the summer between my junior and senior year on a guided missile destroyer to meet my Navy ROTC obligation, and I recently came across a letter I’d written from the ship to my mother asking her to reschedule a dentist appointment so I could go on the march. She wanted to go too, against the strong worries of my grandmother, who had been propagandized along with the rest of the country by the FBI’s warnings that violence was likely. (It was hogwash, of course; the march was completely peaceful, but the scare tactic was typical of the FBI’s attempts to discredit civil rights leaders, especially King, whose “dream” speech was later denounced in an FBI memo that called him the most dangerous “Negro” in America.)
            My grandmother had complicated feelings about race. Having grown up in rural Maryland, she was raised to regard blacks as inferior, and years earlier, when we offered to host a couple of kids visiting from another town for a YMCA event, her one demand was that no “Negro” be assigned to her house, where I lived with my mother. We were ashamed and angry, but it was her house, so we were helpless.
            That was a long while before the civil rights movement had mobilized the conscience of the country, before the dreadful scenes of authorities in the South attacking nonviolent demonstrators with dogs and clubs and fire hoses. My grandmother had minimal formal education, but she had educated herself through reading, and her internal gyroscope inevitably turned her toward justice. By the time the March on Washington came around, I don’t remember her objecting to its purpose, only to its potential—as she had been told—for violence.
            But on the Mall there convened the friendliest crowd imaginable. Another culture was created for a day, in which perfect strangers greeted one another with smiles and, if they bumped or jostled, offered profuse apologies, then bits of conversation. One topic was the August heat, which had people sitting and soaking with their bare feet in the reflecting pool. In this fleeting culture, racial lines were not erased but were crossed more easily than in the culture at large, perhaps because we all knew what we all believed and how deeply we shared those big convictions.
            I paid more attention to the crowd than to the speakers, who seemed to drone on from a great distance, up on the Lincoln Memorial. Then King came to the lectern. “I have a dream” were lines he’d used before, but not so prominently, and we have been told since that he didn’t have them in his text. But when he ad-libbed them, I remember something happening to the crowd. We were suddenly suspended by the timbre and the cadence of his voice as if in a dream ourselves. His vision for the red hills of Georgia struck me particularly. There was a pause among us, a reflection, a yearning.
Of course that was King’s enormous talent. He was able to call for reform by calling up the society’s decency. He could see through the wrongdoing into the best heart of redemption. That is why those lines resonate. Because we Americans are dreamers, and we want to be—dreamers in the most noble sense, which means doers until the dream is made real.
Having grown up in my all-white town, and then going to a practically all-white college, I had no real experience across racial lines. In fact, HKing was the first black person with whom I ever discussed race. I interviewed him for my college radio station at Dartmouth, and I remember his telling the story about his daughter asking repeatedly to visit an amusement park outside Atlanta. King responded more like a father than a civil rights leader: He evaded her question so as not to hurt her. But finally he had to explain that she could not go because she was not white.
That explicit problem is past. Now racial prejudice is more encrypted, more difficult to discern, even as it works its way more subtly. Barack Obama would do well to talk more about it than he has; when he does, as after the not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, he illuminates brilliantly. Obama is a perceptive observer of his own society; he seems hesitant to use his office and his insights to educate. I wish King were around to urge him to do so.
The bus ride home was quiet. We were tired, and we mostly slept. You’d think that we’d have made new friends in the next town over. You’d think that we’d have reached out and continued our encounters. It didn’t happen. I don’t know why. We got off the bus in the dark, into our cars, and went our own ways.



  1. Oh, what a great piece, Dave!! So glad you put your memories up there for us to read! So glad you were THERE. And what a Mom you had - Wonderful woman! (Gee - funny how it makes such a difference in life!!!) By the way, MSNBC is going to run King's ENTIRE speech tonight (Tuesday - August 27th) on Chris Haye's show at 8 pm in case you'd like to see it again (in case you haven't revisited it in recent years - which I wouldn't be surprised if you have.) Ever the reporter - the seeds of your future life were certainly there on that historic day!
    I myself was in the midst of moving to New York City just about then - to start my NYC life at Parsons School of Design - and undoubtedly had
    no thoughts of going - which I really would never have done in any case - Not brave enough!! - though evidently I didn't need to be. I do remember, though, the summer after high school graduation (1961)when I worked at a downtown Boston coffee shop and was genuinely shocked to discover the hideous, hateful racial feelings my white, working class co-workers (from South Boston) expressed - feelings that would become even stronger over the years with all the trouble that Boston eventually had with school busing, etc. The seeds were well planted and on display that summer of 1961.
    I do feel this country changed as a result of that march - dramatically changed - but not quickly - it took years. I still remember when I began working in NYC a few years later, you never saw African Americans doing office work - they just weren't there, in offices. Now they are! - very much so.
    People wonder why there is so much antagonism against Barack Obama. Because he's black? - or progressive? In reading Hillary Clinton's autobiography this summer (which I loved!) it was clear that the Clinton's suffered many of the same hatreds and hostile actions as Obama has received. I had forgotten.
    Some people say, you'd think people would be used to the idea of a black man being president by now - second term and all. I sense that for many people, they're not used to it at all - they're still deeply outraged and resentful and truly cannot accept this sea-change in American life that we have witnessed over the last 50 years. And they express that over and over again with their Politics of the Absurd - a substitute for their FURY over this sea-change.
    It's not complete but it WAS - is - a true sea-change - and that march 50 years ago is - was - a tangible, historic milestone in that sea-change. Life did change!
    So glad you were there! (And I shouldn't be surprised, either. Makes total sense.)

  2. Dave, Thank you for writing such a personal recollection of August 28 fifty years ago. Tonight, August 28, 2013 I plan to listen to MSNBC's playing of Dr. King's full speech reportedly from the rare recording [mentioned by Jonella in her comment above]. In addition I look forward to 8 PM EST tonight when, as MSNBC reported last night, bells will be rung simultaneously in the hills of New Hampshire, the red hills of Georgia, hills all across our country as well as many countries around the world thereby keeping alive Dr. King's dream, ".....bells will ring". I urged my son in California to take a bell to work, ring it at 5PM LA time, and tune in to hear the bells ringing across our land and round the world.

    Fifty years ago I was en route to my freshman year of college and not an eye witness to my mother's experience in suburban Washington, D.C. with the March. Sons and daughters of friends around the country had asked if they could 'crash' at our home when so they could fly and drive to D.C. to participate in the march. She readily agreed and got our guest beds made up and towels laid out. Expecting a few kids, she greeted somewhere between 25 and 30. Normally a hostess who pre-planned every detail, she was swept up by the enthusiasm of all of these visitors each with additional friends in tow. My mother never tired of retelling the story: They draped themselves over existing furniture and then found empty places on the floor. They shared blankets, coats, sweaters, whatever, to make themselves comfortable. They joined her in cooking whatever they found on the shelves, and made sandwiches the next day to take on the march. On the 28th she drove back and forth to shuttle them downtown to the Mall, and then she joined the last carload to become one of the white witnesses to Dr. King's dream speech. She was overwhelmed with her unexpected joy at being part of that historic crowd.

    She had grown up in the cornfield of Illinois with the white/black division in public facilities. However, in 1963 she personally harbored no racist feelings towards people of other colors, but she was adamantly against fraternizing with anyone of the Hebrew faith. Spring of 1963 was my senior year in a D.C. high school that was 99.999% white. My friends in the honors courses were all Jewish and welcomed me into their homes and readily included me in family events. However, my mother would not let me bring any one of them across the threshold into our house, nor would she condone my dating any of them. To this day I relish the fact that my first date at college was having my first ever pastrami sandwich with a wonderful tall dark handsome Jewish student.

    Over the next 45 years my mother became an international women's 'libber' staunchly advocating for women's and children's rights. The domestic and international sisterhood which grew around this effort eroded all of her religious biases. When she died at 89 many of her surviving friends were Jewish. Her journey and that of many of her generation can be, I believe, one of our generation's accomplishment. Similarly, we are witnessing the generation we have parented erode barriers to biases based on sexual orientation.

    At first I ached when historians and authors asserted that history even at best will repeat itself. However, as I age I am coming to believe that wisdom is experiential. Its lessons can be taught and shared with one's own generation and those that preceed and follow, BUT they are rarely understood and absorbed viscerally as when it is personally experienced. So Dr. King's dream 50 years ago today will necessarily be a rippling dynamic across all time and generations.

  3. Hello David. I, too, am from Chatham. I edited the CHS yearbook ('72) with guidance from your mother, "Mrs. Shipler." (Alas, I never had her as an English teacher, which I regret.) We all knew about you at the Times, too.

    My mother was a member of the fair-housing committee in Chatham. Their meetings, at the Congregational Church on Fairmont at Oliver, were occasionally disrupted by bomb threats. And "KKK" was seen here and there around town, spray-painted on walls. Chatham really did have a rep as an island of white. I can remember in 1967 seeing a convoy of troops rolling down Main St., on their way into Newark.

    Some years ago, my mother bought me your book, Country of Strangers, which I have much enjoyed, as I do your blog. It is very generous of you to share your thoughts this way.

  4. David, Your mother was in fact one of the best teachers at Chatham High School. When I was in high school, one black family moved into town. They had two children, I believe, but they were not in my class and I did not know them. And then they were gone. I heard that they did not feel comfortable as the only black family in town. (The town wasn't all white; there was at least one Chinese family.... :) )
    Frank Bowden (Class of 1969)