Is there a train whistle in the distance?
I was only 7 years old in 1963, but growing up in Richmond, Va., I was aware of the “us” and “them” of that day.
Even if you lived outside of the city limits, you couldn’t help but be aware.
Living in a media-saturated environment, it seems the images have been with me all of my life.
We assuage our consciences with words like, “It was just the way things were.”
But a lot of folks were tired and not content to leave things that way.
Thanks be to God.
Those who are old enough to remember 1963 can recall black-and-white images in newspapers and on television screens of police turning dogs and water hoses loose on protesters.
They might also remember that Martin Luther King Jr. was thrown in jail, and that the Birmingham, Ala., cell became a cloister from which he penned the famous “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” to white religious leaders -- a piece of history that should be required reading in primary classrooms.
It was a year when people took to the streets on the East Coast and the West Coast, as President John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act found itself stalled in a congressional bog.
The resulting unrest culminated on August 28, 1963, when a quarter-million people joined together for what was called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” beaming a different scene across America’s television screens.
The voices essentially cried out, “Pass a meaningful civil rights bill! End segregation in public schools! End brutality by police against protesters! Create jobs and set a $2-an-hour minimum wage! Make racial discrimination in the public and private sector illegal!”
It was a peaceful protest, but it was also a celebration of free speech, with celebrities such as Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne and Sidney Poitier.
There was music from, among others, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Josh White and Mahalia Jackson, and voices from leaders in the civil rights movement.
John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, called to the crowd, saying, “The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.”
And it was there that Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history -- certainly one of the most powerful in contemporary history.
He hadn’t planned to tell them about “the dream.” Some accounts say that he was exhorted to do so by singer Mahalia Jackson.
“Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
It was not just the American dream that King drew upon, but the Kingdom dream that the Christian faith says will one day become a reality: Children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
In the year that followed, a 21-year-old high school dropout from the Cabrini-Green public housing projects in Chicago wrote what may have been his most memorable song.
It was Curtis Mayfield, lead singer and songwriter for The Impressions, and the song was “People Get Ready”:
People get ready
There’s a train, a comin’
You don’t need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesels hummin’
Don’t need no ticket, You just thank the Lord
On some fronts, the struggle for equality continues, and the diesels are hummin’ anew.
Maybe one day, we’ll all get on board.
Buzz Trexler is managing editor of The Daily Times. You can email him at (email@example.com)