Like everyone else I know I watched the inauguration. This is the first inauguration I’ve made a point of seeing. Many other things about it are important, but paramount for me was seeing an African-American inaugurated as president.
Seeing the crowds on the mall and the speakers on the platform took me back to 1957. I was 15 and I’d gone to the Prayer Pilgrimage in DC with my friend Pat. Riding down on the bus from New York with the local Youth Chapter of the NAACP.
After its 1957 creation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization of African-American ministers promoting civil rights, announced plans for a prayer pilgrimage to Washington. Pilgrimage sponsors included the SCLC and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as other civil rights movement leaders. The pilgrimage’s goals included demonstrating black unity; providing an opportunity for northerners to demonstrate their support; protesting ongoing legal attacks by southern states on the NAACP, protesting violence in the South; and urging the passage of civil rights legislation. An estimated twenty-five thousand people from thirty states attended the pilgrimage, held on the third anniversary of the United States Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public education.
My friend Pat’s parents were radical socialists (1950’s code for communists except for folks who really were radical socialists), who had the connections to get us the places on the bus. I was excited and stayed up through the whole late-night bus ride. The crowd looked enormous when we arrived. It seemed to cover the whole mall and I felt almost overwhelmed. Harry Belafonte was on the platform and spoke briefly. I knew his involvement in the early civil rights movement was costing him serious career damage. I was impressed that he was there. Adam Clayton Powell gave a very strong speech and then Dr. King spoke. They were both powerful and eloquent speakers. I knew Powell well, both because I was from NYC and because I worked on Saturdays at the lab at Harlem (his district) Hospital. I knew something about Dr. King from the Montgomery bus boycott and his passionate activism, but he was much less familiar to me than Powell.
They’d asked the crowd to wave handkerchiefs instead of clapping, and the sense of repressed energy was very high. I remember looking around at one point and realizing that I was one of the very few white faces in the crowd. Pat and I were the only white people on the bus down and it wasn’t that I didn’t know it, but briefly the realization was scary and then I was remarkably elevated to be there.
Leaders of the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom had asked the audience to focus on the event’s religious nature by waving handkerchiefs instead of clapping during the speeches. .. New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. says that he cares more about civil rights than about other issues discussed in congress… The listening crowd includes many people who are sitting and standing near the memorial, including nurses in caps who line the sidelines. Finally, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wearing his formal church robes, declares that if African Americans are given the right to vote they will be able to obtain many of the basic rights they seek. The clip ends with the crowds again cheering in response.
I felt that elevation once again watching hearing Obama take the oath and hearing his speech. I was sitting in front of a television in 2009 in California, but I was also at the DC Mall in 1957.
Watch this clip of the speeches!
(From the UC Civil Rights Digital Library – the quotes are also from them.)