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.