In the 10th year of my life, two historic events would shape my view of the world forever. The latter occurred on November 22, 1963 when our president was slain. Earlier in the year, I waited with great anticipation to drive to Washington D.C. with my family for what would later be termed “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
But those prescient words uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King and witnessed by 240,000 onlookers came to me over the radio. My parents decided that threats of violence from subversive organizations like the Klu Klux Klan made it too dangerous for the whole family to attend.
My father was the only one who witnessed the rally in person. It is generally believed that the fear of violence trimmed the audience in half. The anachronism of history leaves us to believe that the event was a big picnic and a celebration of brotherhood but it must be stated that the climate was much more tenuous than the semi-centennial celebration that will be held today. One of the great civil rights leaders of the period, James Farmer heard about the demonstration from a Mississippi jail where he was held for protesting unequal accommodations. W.E.B. Dubois, a prominent civil rights leader in the early part of the 20th century died that day. Some of the buses carrying demonstrators were harassed that day. And yet, no greater turning point in human relations might be identified. The Freedom Fighters had laid a viral contradiction of constitutional values at the seat of government. They explained it with force and dignity under the monument of America’s greatest symbol of freedom.
Dr. King had offered the same speech somewhere between fifty and seventy times in other venues, but on that day, he arranged a forum that would spread his message worldwide. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, The 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, were the products of this effort. While excoriating a country that had done little to promote opportunity for blacks a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. King muffled any flames of anti-racist racism by acknowledging the tens of thousands of white Americans, Hispanics, and Asians who traveled to Washington as well. This invitation to include all Americans in the movement for equality paved the way to fight other societal ills such as anti-Semitism, the discrimination of women and other minorities.
The lessons that may be learned from that demonstration and that era need to be stated and restated. We need to continue to fulfill the dreams of our ancestors both black and white, both Jewish and Gentile, the living and the dead who struggled unremittingly and courageously to achieve economic, political and social justice. A Rabbi once asked me if I could tell him when dawn occurs. Is it when I can see the outline of my hand, is it when you can recognize something outside a window, I asked. He said no, dawn occurs when you can look at all the faces of the people you can see and recognize them as your brothers and sisters. The March on Washington was not a picnic, but it was a celebration of brotherhood.
Governor David A. Paterson was the 55th governor of New York State.