Reflections on the March on Washington: Reconnecting and Celebrating
We have spent the last month commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement. Natalie Bullock-Brown attended the March with her childhood friend, Rachel Laser (the RAC’s Deputy Director). Read on for Natalie’s reflection on the day, and check out Rachel Laser’s post here!
In our current pundit-driven media culture, where division is promoted to tear apart the bonds that hold people together, it’s easy to become cynical and begin to believe in the idea that if we look, think or believe differently from each other, we must be enemies. George Zimmerman’s merciless hunting down of Trayvon Martin is a good example of this. And certainly, there are factions in our society – who often self identify as “Tea Partiers” or “Republicans” – who not only hope that we will demonize difference, but purposefully play upon our fear of the “other” in order to create, and even deepen, the wedge.
That’s why it delighted and touched me when a dear, childhood friend whom I’ve known since the 5th grade inquired if I would be attending the recent 50th anniversary commemorative March on Washington. Rachel, who is white and Jewish, is a Washington, D.C. lawyer. I had not seen her since our 25th high school reunion a little over a year prior to the March, but we kept in touch on Facebook – that great re-uniter – and quietly discovered that as much as our shared experience at Francis W. Parker – a progressive, predominantly white, K-12 private school located on the affluent North Side of Chicago – reflected some of our commonalities, we are also much more different than Parker encouraged us to consider. Rachel invited me to stay with her, her husband and her three children for the March. So on August 27th, my two children and I headed to D.C. from Raleigh, NC to join Rachel and take part in what I anticipated would be an emotionally heavy, uplifting, and thoroughly energizing experience.
It was Rachel’s and my plan to show up at her place of work – the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC), which does a lot of important social justice work with Congress and the White House – and listen to Rachel’s boss, Rabbi David Saperstein, discuss the work of RAC within the context of Dr. King’s work, civil rights and the issues the March sought to commemorate. In addition to hearing Rabbi Saperstein, the kids and I had the great fortune to meet and listen to Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner, who worked and marched side by side with Dr. King over fifty years ago. The elder rabbi told many stories of his experiences fighting for civil rights in the 1960s, and drew clear parallels between the hatred that white society felt for black people and the same type of rabid racism that was aimed towards Jews. But what most struck me about all that Rabbi Dresner shared was the enduring themes of community, unity, respect and kinsmanship that seemed central to the effectiveness of those men and women, black and white, who fought together for civil rights so long ago. It made me realize that the divisive rhetoric of today’s Tea Partiers, and the religious right in particular, betrays the true spirit of what makes the potential of America so great and so dear to so many.
So as I listened to Rabbis Saperstein and Dresner, took the Metro, and then walked many blocks to arrive at the National Mall with Rachel, her eldest daughter, Emily, Em’s Venezuelan bestie, Veronica, my kids EJ and Mimi, and a diverse selection of Rachel’s colleagues, I imagined a world where differences in race and religion do not enemies make; a world where my son and daughter could feel free to live, laugh and love around people who don’t look like them, but whose spirits bowed down to each other in recognition of the divinity in each of us. As I walked through the teeming crowd of people walking, sitting, singing, talking, and waiting on the National Mall, the same sort of energy that overtook me at the Million Man March nearly 20 years earlier crept over me. I felt unity on that Mall, a communal spirit fed by the hunger and desire for justice and equality that seemed to burn in the hearts of each person I encountered.
Of course, the line to enter the area surrounding the reflecting pool to hear the speeches of presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama, among other speakers, was long and barely moving. In fact, Rachel and I never did make it beyond the Mall, and eventually packed up our kids and a few of her colleagues to eat and head back to the RAC to watch the speeches in the comfort of RAC’s historic conference room (where the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were drafted). But I’ll never forget the sea of people in the midst of whom I stood – black, white, Asian, Hispanic – all engaging with each other in the most congenial of ways, as if we were somehow one big group of reunited friends. I kept thinking to myself, “This is the type of scene the media and the collective Right don’t want anyone to see.” But I saw it. I experienced it. And even if the March on Washington itself didn’t succeed in the ways that I expected it would, the opportunity to live in the moment during the 50th anniversary with Rachel, our children, served as counterpoint to the negative imagery of marginalized, often disenfranchised people – people whom we fancy to be “different” – that the media and politicians love to underscore. I think that’s what Rachel and I and our children indirectly celebrated on the 50th anniversary of the March, and it bonded us in ways that we many never be able to fully articulate – the idea that true freedom, after all, begins, at least, with the acknowledgement that we don’t have to be the same, nor do we have to always see eye to eye. We ARE different, but as long as we can love each other in the face of difference, and respect those differences enough to honor them, we are free, indeed.
Natalie Bullock-Brown is a department chair and an assistant professor for the Department of Film & Interactive Media at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, NC. She is an award-winning and Emmy nominated producer and consultant.