August 28, 1963. I remember it well. And how wrong I was to be worried about how it would turn out. Hundreds of thousands of protesters massed on the National Mall in the sweltering heat of late August in Washington? Visions of the nation's capital in flames danced through my head -- a spectacle that would set the civil rights struggle back another hundred years. For despite all the tough talk about how the only language these racists would understand was violence, I knew Americans reacted, strongly, against any protest movement that resorted to it. Then came the march itself, and . . . .
How could I have been so wrong? Protesters? These folks, black and white together singing We Shall Overcome? They could have been going to church in their Sunday best. Look at the faded old back-and-white television pictures of the march: the men in coat-and-narrow-tie, their snapbrim fedoras firmly in place. The women decked out in their matronly best, topped off with those wonderfully floral hats that completed the go-to-meetin' ensemble.
I don't think I ever saw Mrs. Edna Mays of Pine Bluff, Ark., without hers.
Mrs. Mays was the founder, sponsor and guiding spirit of a young people's group that had a name like the Negro Youth League. She would invite me to talk to one of its Sunday afternoon meetings now and then. The group seemed devoted mainly to the cultivation of good manners and elocution, no mean arts, and which haven't grown any more abundant since her day. Quite the contrary.
Mrs. Mays once gave me an official-looking certificate proclaiming me an Honorary Negro Father. The term Negro is declassé today, but I was kind of proud of my certificate. Still am. It is no small thing to be a father of any ethnicity. Now all these Negroes -- and a lot of us honorary Negroes, too -- were gathering by the hundreds of thousands in the nation's capital.
I looked at the television coverage and was ashamed of what I'd been worried about. These people hadn't gathered to threaten the Republic but to fulfill it. And they were supposed to be threats? Where could I have gotten such an idea?
I knew where. I'd spent too much time in a graduate seminar working up a paper on the Bonus March of 1932, when veterans marched on Washington to demand their World War I bonuses in the midst of the Depression. When they grew unruly, the president at the time -- poor Herbert Hoover -- told his chief of staff, one Douglas MacArthur, to disperse them. But not arm his troops.