Summer 1963 was a heady time for a young lawyer from Oregon to be in Washington, D.C. Jim Crow still ruled the Old South, almost a century after the Civil War, enforced by beatings, shootings and lynchings, tolerated and encouraged by the Southern white establishment. The Southern bloc in the Senate continued to stymie voting rights and anti-lynching legislation. Even John and Robert Kennedy, the most powerful officials in our government, though sympathetic, could do little. They had had to call out the 82nd Airborne to overcome an armed insurrection merely to enroll one black man, James Meredith, at Ole Miss the previous fall.
Yet, change was in the air. The people themselves, mostly black people, but whites too, began at great personal risk to challenge Jim Crow. Freedom rides, sit-ins at soda fountains and beaches and bus and business boycotts by students, housemaids, ministers and other plain folks were popping up around the South. Their repression with assassination, fire hoses, police dogs and physical brutality only increased people’s determination in what was rapidly becoming a mass popular movement.
It was in this context that I received a phone call at home asking if I could be a marshal for a great march. Black leaders were urging masses of black people and sympathetic whites to come to Washington to petition their government for freedom. The White House discouraged it, fearing violence and alienation of Congress. Southern white citizens councils urged segregationists to come to Washington to counter-demonstrate. George Lincoln Rockwell announced that his American Nazi Party would be there. Newspapers warned of inevitable violence if that many assertive Negroes got together. I couldn’t wait.
Despite warnings, hundreds of thousands of marchers poured into Washington from all around the South and all over the country. On the beautiful, sunny morning of Aug. 28, 1963, most Washingtonians stayed inside. I walked through the silent, empty streets of the Capitol Hill neighborhood to my group’s assembly point near the Washington Monument. We were adjacent to a space reserved for the Nazis and ringed by a cordon of National Guard troops. All morning, a mass of marchers flowed steadily into the assembly area, black people and white, young and old, working class, farmers and professionals. A picnic atmosphere prevailed. After a few hours, Rockwell and the few Nazis who appeared skulked away and my group moved into the line of march down Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial. It was quiet, it was happy and it was peaceful. I knew from my pocket radio that A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther and other leaders were somewhere way ahead of us. The speech-making had already begun when we arrived. If you look at the famous photo of the crowd, my group is a minipixel to the upper right of the reflecting pool.
The event was unquestionably exciting and historic, but to tell you the truth, the loud but only semi-intelligible drone of oratory over the loudspeakers became less inspiring as it went on and on. After about two hours, I decided to wander up front so I could see and hear what was going on. I made my way through tens of thousands of people. As I approached the roadway in front of the memorial, in clear view of Honest Abe in his chair looking down at us all, I could hear over my radio Dr. Martin Luther King being introduced for his turn after the more prominent speakers had spoken.
The moment Dr. King began speaking, one knew he was special. His voice had richness and tremolo. His eloquence was majestic. His voice drew me in to his own profound conviction of the rightness of his message.
'Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.'
It was stunning. Dr. King gave voice to what was in our hearts. He did not so much demand social justice as he gave it biblical rightness and inevitability:
…and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I kept moving forward to where I could see him close-up and hear him without benefit of my pocket radio. And then, he invoked the American dream and made it our own:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’. . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
It was incredibly moving. He called on America, all of America, to 'let freedom ring!'
'when we let it ring . . . we will be able to speed up that day when all' (and his voice rolled out the word like an organ) 'allll of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ '
In a long program of florid oratory, Dr. King’s message had its own inspiring dimension. I still recall it with almost perfect clarity.
Much has happened to me and much happened to the Movement in the 40 years since that day. The March on Washington and Dr. King’s speech crystallized my determination to participate in what I regarded as a historic moment to bring freedom and equality to all people and particularly to the black people of the South. Already working at the U.S. Department of Justice, I was assigned 10 months later to the Civil Rights Division’s grand jury team investigating the murders of Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman in Philadelphia, Miss. We returned the first civil rights indictments in modern U.S. history. And in 1967, I returned to Mississippi as a volunteer with the Lawyers Committee, as did 23 other Oregon lawyers, more than from any other state in the Union. Back home, I handled several civil rights cases for the Oregon Department of Justice, I hope in the same spirit. And I hope Dr. King’s ideals are ingrained in my character and in the patterns of my life.
As for Martin Luther King, we revere his memory, but we do not always honor — or even understand — his legacy. Dr. King’s greatness lay in his appeal to the best in us as human beings, whatever our color. He invoked the most fundamental of all American values, that all humans are created equal. He called for the triumph of love over hate between all of God’s children. His methods were constitutionally protected speech and peaceful petition of our government, not violence. He had faith that if people were judged by the content of their character and if whites and blacks interacted in peace, the brotherhood of all Americans could be achieved. All of that and more is reflected in his memorable speech.
Many of us forget that by the time Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, he and his philosophy had grown out of favor among civil rights militants. 'Integration' was no longer the battle cry. Separatism came in vogue, preached by more dashing figures like Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X. Their creed was based not on individual love, but on racial anger and hatred. They called for 'Black Power,' a racial concept often expressed violently. Whites were disdained as 'honkies' or 'Uncle Charlies.' Even the NAACP dismissed its white employees. Dr. King’s warning not 'to distrust all white people' because 'we cannot walk alone' was displaced by 'burn, baby, burn,' as America’s cities were torched. For many years, it was difficult for a well-meaning white person to participate except by trying to live his or her own life in a way that reflected Dr. King’s values.
Ultimately, the values that endured were not black power, but the dream of integration to which Dr. King devoted his life. Dr. King preached integration, black and white children holding hands, not separatism. As individual human beings, he taught, we must live together without racial boundaries.
The watchword today, 'diversity,' is a more chameleonic term than 'integration.' For many, 'diversity' describes some kind of confederation of respectful, but separate ethnic and racial groups, each with its proportional share of the American pie. That view would be utterly alien to Dr. King’s message. Dr. King’s goal was overall integration of individual human beings, each with equal opportunity, regardless of race or origin. We must be careful what we mean when we praise diversity. True diversity respects individual difference, but does not respect division.
Dr. King’s speech still has resonance today. The American dream remains as it was 40 years ago: that all Americans live together in peaceful equality. Martin Luther King was the spokesman and conscience of the greatest social revolution in American history, perhaps in the history of the world. Everyday life in America is far more integrated today than it was 40 years ago, but the task is far from completed. I have hope and faith that this great revolution will continue to stride forward, steadily and inexorably, as I was privileged to hear him say on that memorable day, just as 'justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.'
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacob Tanzer was Oregon’s first solicitor general and the first director of what is now the Oregon Department of Human Services. He served on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the Oregon Supreme Court, and practiced law in Portland for many years. He now does arbitration and mediation. In 1998, he and the other Oregon attorneys who volunteered with the Lawyers Committee received the ACLU of Oregon’s E.B. MacNaughton Award.
This article originally appeared in the OSB Civil Rights Section’s September 2003 newsletter, Oregon Civil Rights, and is reprinted with permission.
© 2004 Jacob Tanzer