IGR's Patricia Gurin reflects on Civil Rights movement

Photo of Pat Gurin

August 28, 2013  |  By Patricia Gurin

My Remembrance: The March on Washington

People across the United States are remembering the experience of being part of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.  Several of the most famous of the participants were interviewed by Time Magazine.  Their powerful remembrances are published in the “I Have a Dream” Anniversary Issue (August 26-September 2). 

I was there, too.  I wasn’t famous then; I’m not famous now.  But perusing the comments in this issue of Time Magazine and watching an excellent PBS special on the 1963 March spurred my own remembrances of that day and of its impact in the context in which I went to Washington.  I want to share these thoughts with my family, friends, and colleagues, and hope you will find them of some interest, especially what the summer of 1963 in the South and the March itself stimulated in learning what it means to me to be a white woman committed to social and racial justice.

The March     

I drove from Atlanta with people from SNCC (for some of you young people who think of the Civil Rights Movement as ancient history, this stands for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), making the trip to Washington overnight so as to get to the Lincoln Memorial around 9 on August 28.  I knew no one from Ann Arbor who was attending the March, although I am sure buses went from here, too.  By the time we arrived, buses from all over the country were wheeling in, parking in designated places, and releasing thousands of people.  Because I was with SNCC, I was up close to the platform on which singers and speakers addressed the growing crowd throughout the morning and early afternoon.  It also meant being aware of the tension that was being created between SNCC and the March organizers, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph (as well as the leaders of the major Civil Rights organizations who formed the leadership group that conceived of and implemented the first ever national civil rights march) over words that John Lewis, then the SNCC chairman, expected to deliver that day.  I don’t remember what the words were that disturbed the organizers and leaders, but I did understand that the words reflected an on-going tension between SNCC and SCLC on the goals and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement.

What struck me the most about the March were three obvious features:  1) its overwhelming size, reaching 200,000 on the Mall; 2) the huge presence of labor union members who wore hats displaying the locals from which they had come; and 3) what several people referred to as the “salt and pepper” coloring of the crowd.  Labor unions, whose membership peaked in the mid-1950s at 35% of working people, still had strength in the early to mid-sixties of about 25%, whereas now only 11% of working people belong to labor unions.  The presence of people of all colors, ages, gender and many economic backgrounds could not be missed.  Enormous effort had gone into bringing ordinary Black people to the March in buses, trains, and cars from coast to coast.  And certainly the dominant presence was Black.  But there were many White people, many of Asian background and what appeared to be many other backgrounds as well.  It was, as Harry Belafonte in the current Time Magazine writes, a moment of palpable togetherness.

And to see at the end everybody singing “We Shall Overcome” and all the arms linked – we’ve said it often, but it’s worth saying as often as necessary: ghere wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  And it was all of America.  All of it.  You went through that crowd and you couldn’t find any type missing, any gender, any race, any religion.  It was America at its most transformative moment.

Some men wore suits; some wore overalls; others wore shorts.  Some women wore fancy hats; nearly all wore some kind of hat to keep the sun at bay.  Some women were “dressed up,” some not.  Many people were perched in trees along the Mall so as to see better and find some shade.  Everyone could hear the songs and speeches because the March organizers had insisted on installing huge speakers all along the Mall to project what was happening on the stage. 

The most distinctive interactions I remember were ones of kindness and joy.  People helping older people find places to rest.  People holding children up in the air.  People sharing sandwiches (Bayard Rustin had insisted they be peanut butter & jelly so as to avoid any sickness from mayonnaise-based sandwiches) and water.  People fanning each other – It was a scorcher of a day.  People sang; they embraced; they were joyful.

Finally, there was John Lewis’ and Martin Luther King’s speeches.  Both were masterful.  I didn’t know at the time that Rev. King dispensed with his prepared remarks following  Mahalia Jackson’s appeal:  “Tell ‘em about the Dream, Martin.  Tell ‘em about the Dream.”  (Quoted in Time Magazine.) His speech seamed seamless.  But in fact, he was inspired to turn to what has become the standard for political oratory.  Clarence R. Jones, speechwriter for Dr. King, says (Time Magazine) that “I’m watching him from the back.  He takes the text of the speech that he was reading, and he moves it to the side of the lectern.  And then he grabs both sides of the lectern, and I say to the person standing next to me – whoever that was – I said, These people don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.”

The day was over.  What it meant to me at the time was that March validated all I believed -- that a “beloved community” actually existed – that all kinds of people who were committed to a fairer and more equal United States had come together to show the nation the breadth of that commitment – all across this land. 

Fifty years later, the feelings of that day resurface, almost as though I am still there.  I still believe in a “beloved multi-racial, multi-cultural community,” although I have learned through all these years how difficult that is to achieve and how there are people of all backgrounds who don’t yearn to be part of it.   How we live, learn, and love each other are far more complicated than I understood that day.  But that day made “my dream” seem not only possible but probable. 

I went back to Washington, with Jerry, Jennifer, and Rebekah, for the 25th anniversary of the March.  We were living in New York at the time, and joined a group bus from Riverside Church.  Sharing the day with my family and helping them imagine the original March was a precious moment.  Then some years later, Jerry and I, now with Chloe and Bryan, discovered my picture (a much younger, thinner, dark-haired woman with sunglasses but definitely me) in a mural of the original March at the African American History Museum in Detroit.  You family members have an inkling of what all this has meant to me. 

The Summer of 1963: Beginning to Understand White Privilege   

I spent several weeks during the summer of 1963 in Atlanta and at Tougaloo College near Jackson, Mississippi, hanging around SNCC, doing simple tasks at the SNCC headquarters in Atlanta and learning a great deal about race in Mississippi at Tougaloo College.  That special college was then the only place in that state where Blacks and Whites could meet together and where that summer students and faculty began a series of “pray-ins,” in which integrated groups attempted to attend services at white churches in Jackson. 

The main learning of the summer, however, was confronting my identity as a white woman without the shield that my previous husband, Andrew Billingsley, had provided me.  In 1963, I had been divorced from Andy for three years but that marriage had an indelible effect on my commitment to social justice.  As an interracial couple, I began to learn about social justice in a deeply personal way.  But as I learned what college could never have taught me, Andy was always there, using his extraordinary patience and wisdom to help me understand that white privilege was something he had never had and something I would no longer have in the many circumstances when people realized that we belonged together.  One New Year’s Eve when we were living in Ann Arbor, we went into Detroit to attend a ballet performance.  On the way back to our motel in a Black area of Detroit, we stopped for a bottle of wine to welcome in the New Year.  Andy went into the store to get the wine; I stayed in the car.  Suddenly a police car came alongside our car.  Andy came out exactly at that time.  Then these two White cops immediately knew that a Black man and a White woman were together. This was 1958.  “Come along with us,” one said, insisting that we follow their car to the nearest precinct building.  Once inside, we were told that the “offense” was that we had a Wisconsin license plate on our car, which was against the law as we had been living in Ann Arbor for more than six months.  We were kept waiting for hours.  I was enraged and ready to speak my mind about “our rights” and “how we were being treated.”  Andy had to calm me down, to keep me “cool” so as not to make matters worse.  My sense of privilege could have gotten us arrested, not just kept us unpleasantly  for several hours until we were released, with a warning to get that license plate changed.

Still, I didn’t learn a lot about white privilege in those years because our lives were embedded largely in Quaker worlds, first in Chicago, then in Cambridge, Mass., then in Madison, Wisc., and finally in Ann Arbor.  Quaker worlds are nearly exclusively white.  Members of these Quaker “meetings” – as the places of worship are called – became our family – a family that neither Andy nor I had at that time.  Members of the various “meetings” helped us find places to live.  They became our sources of spiritual and social lives.  The life we lived together in these predominantly white worlds largely supported my belief in universal love, the belief that we and everyone else were “just human beings.”  So despite being in an interracial marriage, I didn’t know learn much about race and white privilege, and what little I did learn was buffered by gentle, wise Andy.  

Then in the summer of 1963, I went to the South preparatory to beginning a study of students in historically Black colleges to explore how they were dealing simultaneously with their individual academic and career aspirations and achievements, and with their collective obligations to the Black community through taking part in the demonstrations created by the southern student movement.  How did these students integrate their joint commitments to themselves individually and to their communities collectively?  To understand that question better, I wanted to learn how this issue was conceived and resolved by the most committed activists who were working full time in the movement, most of them in SNCC.  Of course, how these extraordinary, courageous, and fully engaged young people dealt with this question did not represent how full-time students in these historically Black colleges might experience the conflict.  But I felt I could learn a lot before launching the study a year later.  And a conflict it certainly was, often because the students’ parents feared for the safety of their children and because the parents worried about possible academic failure that intense involvement in the movement might produce.  In the eventual book on this study that Edgar Epps, then a faculty member at Michigan and later at the University of Chicago, and I published (Black Consciousness, Identity and Achievement), we quoted the pain felt by a young woman at one of the participating colleges as she talked by phone with her parents whose permission she needed to take part in the Selma to Montgomery march that was to follow one that had occurred on March 7, 1965.  

First, they talked about what they had seen on the news that day … students crying and the state police acting like they were cattle being rounded up.  They just couldn’t let me do it.  I tried to argue – but Mama, Papa, I have to go, I have to do what I can.  Very few have been hurt.  I even admitted that I would be scared and could understand what they felt; I felt it, too, but I just had to go.  When we weren’t getting anywhere down that route, they began talking about how they had sacrificed to send me to college to get a degree and I would be sending that up in smoke by all this civil rights thing.  I did feel bad; they had given up almost everything to send me here, and they have been so proud of my accomplishments – the grades, the honor of representing my college, you know turning into an accomplished student and young lady.  And Papa especially feels that you have to be the best in everything – grades, looks, poise, and ambition – to get ahead with everything else you face if you’re Black.  I admitted all that but kept trying to explain that I can’t just look after myself; I have to try to make a difference for other people, especially other students who will follow after me, and who perhaps haven’t had parents who could do what my parents have.  But they just kept coming back to their frantic fear that I wouldn’t get my degree –  I’d be kicked out, I’d get emotional and put my everything into the movement, I’d ruin my grade point average.  It was the degree; it just means the whole world to them.  I was crying.  It was clear they weren’t going to send the permission, and I knew down deep even when I was talking to them that I would find a way to go anyway.  And all I could say as I knew there was nothing else any of us could do:  But Papa, Mama, what’s a degree for?  I just kept repeating it  -- What’s a degree for?  And they said they loved me and hung up.   

There is no question that I learned a huge amount about the depth and strength of commitment of these SNCC activists in that summer of 1963.  What I also learned was the necessity of confronting who I was – what it meant to be a northern, highly educated, privileged white woman who would return to the safety of the University of Michigan after the March on Washington.  I wanted to wear a sign that said:  “I’m not like other white people.”  But there was no sign.  There was no Andy to shield me.  There was just me, listening and learning, especially to and from two special white women activists.  One, Jane Stembridge, the daughter of a white Baptist preacher in Georgia, was four years younger than I.  A graduate of Meredith College in North Carolina and a student at Union Theological Seminary in 1960, Jane left school after being inspired by Ella Baker, the long-time activist for social justice and in many ways the “mother” of the student movement.  The other was Casey Hayden, six years younger than I, who was born in East Texas and was a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.  I shared their flat in Atlanta.  I drove with Jane Stembridge at one point in the summer to Tougaloo College.  I watched how they behaved in the predominantly male, Black cultural milieu of the Atlanta SNCC office.  I listened to them discuss the meaning the movement had for them.  Casey Hayden wrote in 1985 of those times and her work in the summer of 1964 in SNCC’s Freedom Summer in Mississippi: 

“Sometimes I have longed for the movement so profoundly.  The only nostalgia that compares is for my grandmother’s backyard when I was a child – the pomegranates and ripe figs, roses and sweet peas, ferns and irises and crepe myrtle, and oleanders, pecans and walnuts and swings and wet grass on little bare feet in the summertime.  The movement was rich like that.  And in like manner there is no going back.” Preface to Freedom Song by Mary King.

It wasn’t that how they talked about fitting their white identities and white privilege into the southern student movement, which shortly would undergo divisions within it as the Black Power Movement emerged.  Nor did they give me models for how I could be a highly educated, privileged white woman working for racial justice.  But what they did do was make clear that I had to begin a journey to answer that identity question for myself.  It has been a life-long journey, one with implications for my family life, social connections, research commitments, and one that eventually led to the multi-cultural ethos of intergroup dialogue where students, faculty, and staff learn how to bridge differences while respecting the importance of solidarity people feel within their different identity groups. 

I went off to the March on Washington full of questions and fully aware that my desire to live and love within a multi-racial/cultural community would have to honor separateness as well as togetherness, and that it was up to me to create my own “beloved community.” Most importantly, it would be up to me to use my privilege to open up opportunities for others.  So my remembrance of the 1963 March on Washington is a crystallization of what this journey might involve – for me, for others, and eventually for the family Jerry and I would create.

It was indeed an incredible experience within the context of an extraordinary summer, partly because of the impact of these two vibrant, dedicated, strong white women and partly because of the bravery and vision of the many men and women of all racial/ethnic backgrounds who worked with SNCC that summer, and who let me “hang around” to learn what I could and go along with them to the March on Washington.

I write this remembrance not to minimize the social and political significance of the March – its impact on President Kennedy and on Lyndon Johnson who would shortly thereafter become President and who would shepherd the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act through Congress.  But as for most people, these singular events have personal meaning as well.  And this is a personal document.