March on Washington 2013: A Scene of Unity

The thousands who came may have been strangers, but they shared a common bond in the fight for equality.

Attendees at the anniversary of the March on Washington (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Attendees at the anniversary of the March on Washington (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

(The Root) — It is difficult to imagine yourself living in a different chapter of history, but I tried this morning while walking among the waves of people on the National Mall. I hummed to myself the spirituals and protest songs I remembered hearing people sing in grainy black-and-white footage from the ’50s and ’60s: “We Shall Overcome,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” I tried to picture women with freshly flipped hair in wiggle dresses walking arm-in-arm with men in their Sunday best. For a split second, I tried to imagine rows of police officers holding the leashes of German shepherds, whose faces snarled almost as much as their owners’ did, but thankfully I failed there.

In fact, I failed everywhere in my attempt to revive the setting. The trappings of the modern day were everywhere: Everyone was on a cellphone, some taking pictures and video, complaining about not being able to get a tweet to post. Dreadlocks and Afros were absolutely everywhere, splicing the scenery like sunflowers cutting against a red wooden barn. “We Shall Not Be Moved” was replaced with catchy chants that were almost funky enough to make you want to dance: “Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop!” (I actually may have two-stepped a little bit to that one.)

I arrested my attempt to re-create that day in 1963 and took in the sights around me. The vibe echoed the weather — clear and breezy with just a little bite from the sun to remind you that the heat was still there. I listened to the conversations of people around me, noting where everyone was from. Detroit, Cincinnati, Tallahassee, Fla., Nevada. There were several large groups clad in matching T-shirts that reminded me a bit of a family reunion. It felt that way, really — meeting eyes with someone in passing was like seeing someone you’d never seen, but knew you were related to. You may not know the details, but you’re from the same branch; you’re on the same page. A gentle smile, a knowing nod, and it was on to the next new cousin.

At any given time, five different chants filled the air around me, from sharp little ditties demanding the end of a corrupt prison system, to the ever-classic “No justice! No peace!” People bore signs decrying the George Zimmerman verdict and pushing for D.C. statehood. It seemed an altar call of grievances; bare your open wounds and find strength in telling the story of how you got them. Lean on others in search of the same cure. You may leave with the same handful of scars, but feel lighter in knowing that you’ve been heard, that a first step toward a salve has been taken.

Paying attention to what was being said around me rather than how it was being said and the look of who was saying it, I soon found that though the players and costumes had changed, the setting and theme remained the same. It was not hard to find the words of Dr. King and his cohorts in the calls for an end to police brutality. There was something strikingly familiar in the demand for voting rights and a living wage. Listening to the thousands of voices demanding things that never should have been denied them in the first place, things that are long overdue, I felt a lot closer to that day in 1963. Some of us in the crowd had been there at the first march; others of us would not have yet been born.

But we were all there now, and I saw no strangers in the crowd. No matter the direction we walked, the crosses we bore, the songs we sang, the destination never changed. In 50 years, it has not changed. While it is discouraging to flip through the pages of a history book and see so much of our old trials raging on, it is warming to know that we are still moving along this journey, eyes pointed to a common goal: justice, freedom, equality.

Tracy Clayton is a writer, humorist and blogger from Louisville, Ky.