March on Washington

50 Years After I Marched on Washington, We Still Have to Give Our Sons 'The Talk'

By Yolanda "Cookie" Parker

I almost heard one of the most famous speeches in American history from a first aid tent on the National Mall.

On August 28, 1963, when I was 17 years old, my older sister and I snuck out of our house in Maryland at 6:00 am and traveled to the March on Washington, despite our parents’ objections. The day was hot and I hadn’t eaten anything. Standing in the front row, listening to the day’s first speeches, I fainted. The next thing I knew, I was in the first aid tent and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was about to begin his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. My sister and I rushed back out into the huge, alive crowd. It was a sight I will never forget.

Fifty years later, I listened to President Obama speak in the same place as Dr. King. I have come a long way since then – besides being lucky enough to have a chair this time – and, so has our country. Returning to the site of the 1963 March, it was impossible not to be moved by the sight of our first African-American president speaking in the same place that Dr. King had spoken.

My own story speaks to the extraordinary success of all those who fought for Civil Rights when I was growing up. However, it also reminds me that we have not achieved an easy pat ending of racial equality simply because we have our first African-American President as many on the political right would like us to believe.

I grew up in a military family – my stepfather was in the Air Force – which meant that my mother had to bring her own civil rights movement with her as we moved from base to base.

I started high school at a segregated school in Biloxi, Mississippi, where all girls in the 9th grade were not allowed to take science, and instead had to take home economics. After my parents went to the school board and got a special dispensation for me to take science, I was forced to sit in the back of a classroom full of boys. I still won the school’s science contest.

We then moved to Hamilton AFB in Marin County, California and lived on base. A little more than a year later my stepfather was transferred and since we could not go with him we had to move off base. The only area we could move to in those days was pretty dilapidated so my Mother repeatedly petitioned officials in the Kennedy Administration, and refused to move off base for months until my family was allowed to move into decent housing, which was in an all-white neighborhood.  Before we could move in, Air Force officials went door-to-door, checking to see if any of our new neighbors minded if a “colored family” moved in.  They didn’t – and ultimately, some of those neighbors became good friends.

In the last semester of my senior year in high school, we were transferred to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland where I had to attend a newly integrated high school in Suitland, MD. I remember one teacher who was astounded that I had an aptitude for math and science. When I did well on my initial exam, she said in astonishment, “Oh, Yolanda, I didn’t know colored people could do math!”

Eventually, I built a career at IBM, worked for a tech startup and then started my own company with software I developed.

Throughout my career, I’ve known that none of this would have been possible if not for the relentless determination of my mother and the principled impatience of civil rights leaders like Dr. King and Whitney Young, Jr. As President Obama said on the anniversary of the March, “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn't bend on its own.” There were a lot of hands bending that arc.

Although I’ve come from being banned from science class to starting a tech company, from fainting in front of the Lincoln Memorial to working as hard as I could to help elect our first African-American President, I know that achieving Dr. King’s dream, and my mother’s dream, is still going to take a lot of work.

When my son got his driver’s license in 1993, my husband and I still had to give him “the talk” about being a young black man in America – the same talk my husband’s father gave him. And today, my friends who have young children of color must explain what happened to Trayvon Martin and why, heartbreakingly, they need to understand it.

Decades after my mother fought to get my family into decent housing and to give me an equal education, the income and wealth gaps between African-Americans and whites are continuing to widen. The unemployment rate for African-Americans is still twice that of whites. Our schools still provide a wildly different quality of education to children of different races. And even the protections for voting rights that were secured by the Civil Rights Movement were just torn apart by the United States Supreme Court.

Coretta Scott King once said, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” When I hear that, I think of my mother and of the young people today who are now picking up the mantle.

The truth is that for all of us, the story of the progress of our nation is the story of our own individual lives. And in all of our stories, we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go and therefore must keep fighting for economic justice, voter justice and educational justice.

Yolanda “Cookie” Parker is the founder and president of KMS Software Company and a member of the board of People For the American Way. She also served on President Obama’s National Finance Committee.
 

PFAW

John Lewis and a new generation of movement leaders

"And I say to all the young people, you must get out there and push and pull and make America what America should be for all of us . . . I'm not tired. I'm not weary. I'm not prepared to sit down and give up. I am ready to fight and continue to fight. And you must fight."
PFAW Foundation

Marching On Washington, Again

This weekend People For the American Way Foundation turned out en masse for the 50th Anniversary March on Washington.

Some could remember the original march well.  Some had driven across the country to be there on Saturday.  

Our reasons for being there were as diverse as the range of topics covered by the speakers. Some wanted to see an end to Stand Your Ground laws; others spoke in support of immigration reform, LGBT equality, or voting rights. 

But everyone stood in solidarity with those who marched half a century ago, while calling attention to the ongoing need to fight for social, economic, and racial justice.  Everyone raised their voices in support of justice for all

We saw Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) – just 23 years old when he spoke at the original March on Washington – take the podium again, speaking passionately about the need to protect the right to vote.  He called it “precious…almost sacred.”  Lewis recalled:

I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama for the right to vote.…I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us.

Members of the PFAW Foundation family also took the podium.  Young People For (YP4) alum Sophia Campos spoke in personal terms about the need for change in immigration policies, saying: 

I grew up in this country undocumented. My family is immigrant… A million people have been deported in the last five years….It’s our black and brown bodies in these cells that are being detained.

Another YP4 alum, Dream Defenders leader Phil Agnew, also spoke at the rally, calling on young people to take the lead in the progressive movement.  Young people, he said, are “here today to join in a conversation that will shake the very foundations of this capital.” 

And Rev. Charles Williams, an active member of PFAW Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council, was named by the event organizers as being part of the next generation of leaders.

We came to honor those who marched 50 years ago, but also to call attention to the critical justice issues facing our country today.  As PFAW Foundation President Michael Keegan wrote last week:

That’s what this week is about: making sure that we, as a country, continue to strive to fulfill the promise of justice for all -- the American Way.

PFAW Foundation

Making History and Knowing our History

Events commemorating the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom are already under way in Washington, D.C.  If you live in the capital area or nearby, you may want to attend events at the Lincoln Memorial this Saturday, August 24th or next Wednesday, August 28th , or one of dozens of other events. The A. Philip Randolph Institute, for example is holding its 44th annual education conference and youth conference in honor of Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the organizers of the March who appeared on the cover of Life Magazine’s September 6, 1963 issue. You can find information about events here and here.

Whether or not you can get to Washington, you can catch major events on television. And you might want to get started tonight – Friday, August 23 – with the PBS re-broadcast of an award-winning documentary about author and advocate James Baldwin.  James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket will be shown on PBS stations as part of the American Masters program.  Broadcast times vary so check your local station’s listings. PBS will also host on interactive online screening at 5:00 pm eastern on August 28th.

Another important documentary, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, will also be shown on public television on August 28th.

For a reminder of why it’s important to know our history, and prevent it from being co-opted, see People For the American Way President Michael Keegan’s new Huffington Post op-ed, Don’t Let the Right Wing Co-opt King.

PFAW

50 Years Later, John Lewis Returns to Podium as Sole Surviving March Speaker

Recently The New York Times reminded us that Representative John Lewis is still marching on Washington, 50 years later.

On August 28, 1963, as the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis took the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Tomorrow, as the 73-year-old representative from Georgia's 5th congressional district, he will commemorate the 50th anniversary of those remarks.

Representative Lewis returns to the podium as the sole surviving speaker from the March on Washington.

A half century ago he was the torchbearer for youth leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. The message he delivered still hits home for youth leaders like those of Young People For.

Here at YP4 we know that “justice for all” is an expansive idea that includes pushing for and protecting civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT equality and more. It means rededicating ourselves to the promise of vibrant, safe, democratic communities. It means fighting for a country where our voices are not drowned out by massive corporate spending to influence our elections. It means standing up to groups like ALEC which push extreme laws threatening the wellbeing of our communities, such as the “Stand Your Ground” laws that YP4 alumni like [Phillip] Agnew – leader of the Dream Defenders in Florida – have been fighting to change.

In other words, we know that “justice for all” is a promise that has yet to be realized.

Join us tomorrow as Representative Lewis and others once again bring the struggle for jobs, justice, and freedom back to the nation's capital. Check out MLKDREAM50 for information on the full week of events.

PFAW Foundation

Don't Let The Right Wing Co-opt King

We must not allow this historic anniversary to become a moment that perpetuates an ersatz, sanitized, co-opted version of King and the movement he led.
PFAW Foundation

Still Marching for Justice, Health, and Black Women’s Lives

Guest post from Reverend Dr. Geraldine Pemberton, Assistant Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia and member of PFAW Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council. 

As a 74 year old retired nurse, I can remember the original March on Washington well.  I wasn’t able to be there in person that day, but many of my family members were.  After marching with Dr. King and more than 200,000 other Americans, they were inspired to come home and fight for justice.

I myself am of the Jim Crow era.  The injustices that Dr. King described that day as the “chains of discrimination” were injustices I faced first-hand.  My father, who was born in North Carolina, would take my family down from Philadelphia for visits to his home state.  He would try to prepare us as much as he could, but it was always overwhelming.  I remember that once we passed the Mason-Dixon line, we couldn’t use most bathrooms.  We would have to use outhouses behind gas stations instead.

Today I can see how far we’ve come, but also how much further we still have to go.  I have spent much of my life fighting the injustices that drove the first March on Washington, especially health disparities facing women of color.  Justice, I have learned, is a very big umbrella that must include equality for women.  A just society has to be one that values women’s voices and fights back against health disparities that threaten black women’s lives.

Twenty years after that march, I went to another major event that inspired people from all over to drop what they were doing and travel across the country – the 1983 Spelman College conference on women’s health, which birthed what is now the Black Women’s Health Imperative.  My friend and I saw a flyer for it but didn’t think we could afford to go.  We maxed out our credit cards and drove down to Atlanta. Thousands of women showed up for the conference – young women, older women, women with children, women who had hitchhiked there.  We just showed up - we had to be there.

That conference unfolded into a lifetime of work in pursuit of improving the health outcomes of African American women.  As a former Director of Nursing and a current Health Committee Director for an alliance of Black clergy in Philadelphia, I know that women of color need improved access to care and greater provider sensitivity.  Women need more information on the diseases that affect us most.  And as a 74 year old Philadelphian, I’m still fighting for women’s health and justice.  This year I am organizing health forums at churches throughout the city to give women more information about diseases, healthy living, and greater access to health services though the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act commonly known as “Obamacare.”

The first health forum is this weekend – fifty years after the March on Washington.  In so many ways, we are still marching.

PFAW Foundation