The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is today got me thinking about an earlier march. It was May 17th, 1957. I was 15 and although I’d been doing activist work, it had all been near my home in NYC. My friend Pat and I had heard about the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. Her father, an activist, was editor of the UAW magazine Ammunition. He made the connections so that we could go down on the night bus with the Jamaica (Queens) NAACP. I don’t remember sleeping much. The crowd was by far the largest I’d ever been in. We were asked to wave handkerchiefs instead of applauding the speakers because it was a religious event. The intensity of the suppressed energy of the silent applause is still with me.
The speakers that I remember vividly are Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr. ( Powell speaks powerfully on the video in the link below, but he’s not mentioned in any of the limited materials I found.)
The Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington for Freedom took place on May 17, 1957, when a crowd of over thirty thousand nonviolent demonstrators, from more than thirty states, gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the third anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. In addition to celebrating the three-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to end segregation in public education, the Prayer Pilgrimage also dramatized and politicized the failure of most southern states to work toward or implement the court-ordered desegregation of their schools. The pilgrimage was organized by A. Philip Randolph, a noted leader of the Civil Rights movement who gained recognition in 1941 when his plan for a mass gathering in Washington to draw attention to discrimination in the war defense industry, prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to desegregate the nation’s munitions factories and establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission. The demonstration’s three-hour program featured addresses, prayers, songs and scripture recitations led Mahalia Jackson, Roy Wilkins and Mordecai Johnson, as well as, Martin Luther King Jr.’s first address before a national audience…. at the time it occurred, the march earned the distinction of being the largest organized demonstration for Civil Rights, and was instrumental in laying the groundwork for future marches on the nation’s capitol.
On this past July 20th I was at the San Francisco vigil, part of the 100 City Vigil for Trayvon Martin. It got me thinking about how much and how little things have changed since I was fifteen. Emmett Till was murdered when I was 13. Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012 when I was 70. It enrages and saddens me that still white men escape any penalty murdering young black men. Emmett Till was 14 and Trayvon Martin was 17. I know that many things have changed, but I am deeply unhappy about the things that haven’t changed or haven’t changed nearly enough.
But I feel hopeful about a renewed civil rights movement as exemplified by the Dreamers in Florida and the very recent immigrant rights demonstrators in Phoenix. And by the people fighting yet another time for the vote. As I heard Martin Luther King say in 1957: Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the Federal Government about our basic rights. And despite an African-American president and an African-American Attorney General – it’s a long time coming.