Sunday, August 24, 2003

The March on Washington 1963

I was there. I went as part of the delegation of the Greensburg Diocese Catholic Interracial Council. The Council's membership was composed of two young priests, who also made the trip: Father John Conway and Father James Petonic. The rest of the delegation was: me. I was about to begin my senior year at Greensburg Central Catholic High School.

There were no "Negroes" at Central Catholic. I never saw a black face in any Catholic church where I grew up. I did in fact live next door to a black family, all of my conscious life until then. But I never really connected the Robinson family, and my boyhood playmate, to the Civil Rights struggle. He was just a friend (I went to his church once, and to a chicken dinner his church sponsored) and they were just neighbors, each of them individuals, more important in their categories of Parents or Sisters, or as one of the four of us who did stuff together, played out our dramas, played on the same baseball teams and pick-up football games. Although looking back on it, certain elements of racism were part of even those relationships.

For me, Civil Rights was about principle, justice and redeeming the American political system. I was educated in politics by the Kennedy administration. I believed the Kennedy rhetoric on race and I understood the politics: the march was a countervailing force, against the political power of white southern Democrats, who made up a major part of the Washington establishment and the party's electorate. I didn't feel I was disloyal to Kennedy, let alone America. And in fact, in contrast to antiwar demonstrations that followed, the march's leaders were received in the White House by the president.

It was a moral principle as well, which I believed was consistent with Catholicism, even if not with a lot of Catholics. So the nuns and the local church couldn't disapprove. They didn't do anything to support the march either.

I was partly in blissful ignorance of my environment, and partly defiant. I related to worlds I read or saw on TV and in the movies, the music that I listened to. Reality was the Kennedy administration, James Baldwin's impassioned prose, The Law and Mr. Jones, George C. Scott in East Side/ West Side, Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, and Roberto Clemente in right field. J.D. Salinger was in there somewhere too: so it was your working class Catholic Holden Caulfield marching on Washington...

I credit my parents with allowing me to go. They were good about this sort of thing. They helped arrange things so I could visit relatives I didn't actually know for Kennedy's Inaugural. (I did the rest, and operated myself into position to shake the new President's hand, in church.) Later, when I was a freshman at Knox College, they gave permission for me to go with several older students to register voters in Mississippi. The older students and whatever organization it was---I don't remember---changed their mind about taking me with them, but I had been ready to go.

There was some idea that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom might involve violence. Somehow I knew it wouldn't. The marchers weren't marching against anybody; the Kennedy administration may have been less helpful than Civil Rights leaders wanted, but basically they weren't the enemy. (In fact, when JFK made an impromptu television address announcing the voting rights act and his strong support for civil rights, he knew that it would mean the end of Democratic party dominance in the south, with political repercussions that are still being felt.) It was also supported by lots of labor unions, and unions were still a powerful political force, and still a liberalizing one.

So the only violence would come from those who opposed the march. It wouldn't come from the police; by now, the Kennedy administration knew to anticipate and plan for contingencies, so there would be order.

So there I was, on the train to Washington from Pittsburgh, with two priests. They were nice enough but I can't say I was comfortable. But the train was full of people going down to the march. I started walking through the cars, where people sat quietly and smiled tentatively if you caught their eye. Then I whoosed open one door, and everything changed.

It was an entire train car full of young people, all singing. Folk songs, spirituals, political songs I didn't yet know. There were guitars and hand-clapping. The car was packed. Some were even up in the luggage bays. That was one of the true spiritual experiences of my life.

If you've seen the footage they usually run, you've seen us getting off the trains. A lot of people came by train. We were amazed to see each other. I had never seen so many black people in one place before. And they seemed to be amazed to see any white people. There was such a feeling immediately from the train platform throughout the march. An intense peace. Wonder. Awe. Gratitude for each other. Love. It was an altered state of consciousness for sure.

The march itself was wonderful. I just remember the feel of it, the sound of it. The excitement and wonder as people began to realize how many of us there were. There had never been anything like this before, not in the whole history of the country. I seem to recall hearing that the organizers would have been happy with 50,000. Then we heard there were 100,000. Then two. Then three. I guess the number that has become official is 250,000. There was never a moment when violence was even a remote possibility.

Then we were at the reflecting pool for the speeches and the music. I was over to the left as you look away from the platform, about halfway, although I walked around a good deal. It was hot. Real hot. That's basically what I remember. I listened to the music, to the speeches. I thought Martin Luther King's speech was eloquent, but James Baldwin could have written a better one. The truth is I was waiting for Peter, Paul and Mary to sing "Blowin in the Wind." That was the emotional high point for me. The rest was heat and fatigue.

At some point I got some relief when the priest in charge led us to the congressional office of William Moorhead, the Democrat who represented Pittsburgh in the House. We got a chance to wash up and cool off. I don't remember anything about the trip back. I probably slept.

A few days after we got back, when I was still feeling inspired, I contacted the editor of the monthly newspaper of the diocese, the Catholic Accent. I offered to write something about my impressions of the march---I was already setting the pattern of my life by proposing a three-part series. He said one article would do.

I think it was my first publication outside of school papers, and maybe the letters to the editor column of the local daily. The article begins in an interesting way, considering how that day is now viewed. I quoted John Stuart Mill, I see, with dubious appropriateness, but the truth was I was actually reading Mill-something else I picked up from the Kennedy era. But you notice, there's no mention of the King sound bite. "I have a dream" wasn't yet the stuff of legend and TV commercials. So here it is, in full, direct from the scrapbook...

GCCH STUDENT gives his views on march
by Bill Kowinski
Senior, Central Catholic High School

The big shock came to us when we returned home. After all the hours of standing, walking, riding, and marching: after seeing huge masses of dedicated and self-sacrificing people; after hearing the songs and speeches crying for freedom, we were vastly surprised to hear the dispassionate estimates of our effectiveness. The consensus seemed to be that we did little, of any, real good.

Most of these opinions were in reference to civil rights legislation, but to the young people this was not the real issue. The legislation will inevitably come, and it is for future generations to make it work, and to promote the true social integration of the races.

Is this impossible? Had there not been a march, there would be grave doubts about the practicality of realizing this American ideal.

But today, after the march, there can be no doubt. When a mass of people roughly equivalent to the population of Syracuse, comprised of different backgrounds, religions, races, and coming from different regions, could converge on Washington with such dedicated and dignified fervor as to make thoughts of violence absurd, then hope for the future is supremely justified.

It all held special meaning to the young people. They had come from many places, and for many reasons. Perhaps their thoughts were best expr3essed by a favorite folk singing group who sang these lyrics from a popular song at the march:
"How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?"

From the singing on the Freedom Train, to the slow chant of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the young people brought spirit and compassion to a cause in which they deeply felt.

While all the banners for "Freedom Now!" will have to be satisfied by the present generation, the young people of today will also face a great task.

As John Stuart Mill wrote: "I refuse to congratulate a man or a generation on getting rid of prejudices until I see what is substituted in lieu of them."

Prejudice is based mainly on ignorance. It was evident to the marchers that once the races begin to live and work together, as we marched together, meaningful integration can be achieved. It will fall upon the shoulders of the young people of today to see it through.

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