Every Martin Luther King Day I think of my dad. He was among the 260,000 people who journeyed to Washington to march for the end of legal segregation. When I see pictures of that great sea of people, I smile and for a second try to find his face in the crowd. He and the others felt the urgency to go: to take the time off work, to parse together the funds for a bus ticket or for gas so that they could gather and hear the man who breathed hope into their lungs. For my dad, it meant getting leave from the military and taking the long trip from Ft. Carson to our nation’s capital. It was that important.
My dad came of age in the 1940’s and withstood the indignities that Black boys and men withstood all over the nation at that time. His marriage to my mom was illegal in almost half of the country and he daily endured blow after blow of rabid racism from his commanding officer. The pull to Washington was irresistible. Something had to change, and if his presence could help, even in a microscopic way, it would be worth the trip.
I wish I had asked him what it felt like to be there: what had gone through his mind. But how was I to know that he would pass at just 54 years of age, that I had so little time to ask him everything?
What would have happened if King hadn’t stepped up and stepped into his assignment? What if he hadn’t had those conversations with Kennedy and Johnson? What if God hadn’t given him the words, the talent to calm angry men, comfort mourning mothers and plot a way forward? What if he lacked the character to resist retribution and embrace nonviolence? What if God had not granted him favor among powerful politicians? What if there were no Civil Rights Act? Would we live where we live, would my kids go to their schools, would they take lessons at one of the nation’s premier music institutions? Would we have the means to visit family in other countries and the freedom to walk where we please?
My dad’s presence at that march did help. President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy couldn’t believe that so many could gather so peacefully. The National Guard was on standby, and everyone was prepared for the worst. Yet, over a quarter of a million people assembled, people who had been treated inhumanely and uncivilly for hundreds of years. They listened to King’s dream, and then they peacefully dispersed. No need for those Guardsmen. Kennedy beamed and invited the civil rights leaders back to the White House to discuss the bill that would be the most sweeping piece of legislation since Reconstruction.
King made that happen, and my dad, and every other man, woman and child who attended that march, helped.