How odd that the speech that popularized the phrase “the fierce urgency of now” would provoke such nostalgia 50 years later. I was in Washington, D.C. this week, so I walked to the National Mall to mark the half century since Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.
I left my apartment at 12:30 under threatening skies. Most Washingtonians were hoping the weather would make good on its threat. It had been 96 degrees the day before and everything still felt sticky. I turned left on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Capitol dome loomed over the nearby trees, and the Washington Monument pointed upward in the distance.
The sidewalk scurry of Capitol Hill reminded me of Alton Baker Park on Game Day. Almost everyone was headed in the same direction, with an air of anticipation. The crowd was younger than our Duck fans. They sported a wider range of colors — in garb and skin.
I walked past U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio’s office balcony, where he has an unobstructed view of the Capitol, perfect for taking photos with constituents. As No. 17 in seniority, DeFazio could have almost any office he wants on the Hill, but he’s yet to see one he likes better.
From there, I cut diagonally to the Mall. I wanted the protection of its trees against a gentle drizzle. I heard helicopters overhead, but that’s not unusual in this neighborhood.
Straight ahead was the Washington Monument, clad for extensive earthquake repairs. (Imagine a condom, built with an Erector set.) Sharing the western skyline were four construction cranes, hovering over a pit that will become the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was scheduled to be completed by now, but has instead barely begun construction. The building’s “fierce urgency of now” has been rescheduled for 2015.
The Mall has always been envisioned as our nation’s front lawn, stretching in four directions with the Washington Monument as its centerpoint. The first two blocks of center lawn nearest the Capitol have been cordoned off for grass rejuvenation, as if our nation’s elderly Congressional leaders had opened their porch door and insisted that people stay off their grass.
A carousel’s calliope in front of the Smithsonian Castle masked faint music in the distance — “Amazing Grace” was easy to recognize. The mixture of nearby and faraway sounds was no different than a summer night in Eugene when the Cuthbert Amphitheater is in full swing.
Within a few blocks of the Washington Monument, the foot traffic became thick and uniform. Umbrella vendors appeared from nowhere as the rain increased. T-shirts, buttons and posters also became suddenly available. The only people moving away from the destination were some of the tourists. They looked determined to “see the sights,” refusing to be distracted by any other fierce urgencies.
Twelfth Avenue was lined with food trucks, from one end of the Mall to the other. “Let justice roll down like a river” — or at least let a $5 burrito roll down 12th. I could hear “Day of the Lord” being shouted with judgmental tones, but it wasn’t at the event. It was just a guy on a street corner with a microphone and a mission.
The rain had by now become steady. I ducked into a park restroom, but the room still had yesterday’s weather. I tried not to stick to anything. Protesters milling outside the bathrooms with signs told me I had reached my destination — almost.
Entry onto the Mall south toward the Lincoln Memorial was limited to a single gate. I could see two security agents and a metal detector, against a line that stretched several blocks.
Everything is better protected now than in 1963 — the lawns, the monuments, the speakers, the event. Nothing is necessarily safer, but everything is better protected. I planted myself near but outside that single checkpoint, where I had a good view of the stage in the distance.
Here’s how far away I was. My smallest fingernail at arm’s length more than covered the giant screens set up on either side of the reflecting pool. Park officials later estimated a crowd of about 20,000, or about one tenth of King’s audience in 1963.
The urgency of “now” in 1963 was not separable from the immediacy of “here.” There was no substitute for being there. No Twitter, no hashtags, no C-Span, no 24-hour news channels. In fact, the network news in August 1963 was 15 minutes long.
In response to this event, CBS doubled Walter Cronkite’s nightly newscast to 30 minutes on September 2, 1963, just days after the March on Washington. NBC followed suit one week later. (ABC didn’t increase its newscast from 15 minutes until 1967.)
I sat beside Bill Burchette, a 73-year-old Air Force veteran from North Carolina. He got up at 5 a.m. to make the trip. He came “for the sake of his grandkids.” He wanted them to hear this story from him. His wife made him promise to call in every hour or so.
We couldn’t hear anything onstage, but we didn’t care. We were there for the moment. Bill told me stories about growing up in the south in the 1940s. “I never saw racism directly until 1959. I was 18, on my way home from my first term at electronics school. I stopped at a diner and two soldiers were in front of me, one white and one black. The woman at the counter took off her glasses and pointed toward the door, using the worst language I had ever heard.”
By the time he got home, it had dawned on him. Racism was all around his little North Carolina town, but he’d never had to look in its eyes because everything was segregated. “The Ku Klux Klan always marched in our parades, with their hoods and masks. I remember because there was one business owner who walked funny and we wondered as kids why he hid his face. We all knew him by his walk.” That lunch counter confrontation — the fire in the eyes — was something new for Bill.
So for his grandchildren, he looks for opportunities to talk about equality and justice. Getting up before dawn was an important part of his story. Everybody around us had a story to tell.
NBC weatherman Al Roker and various TV camera crews stopped nearby to take set shots, used to set the mood of the on-air reports. The mood around us was captivating. The scripted program on the stage hardly mattered.
More than 200 young people in matching T-shirts converged not far from me, around 50 Papa John’s pizzas that had been carried in. Half an hour later, those teenagers were aggressively giving away their leftovers to anyone who came near.
Shandria Vaughn, 18, was among the “five or six busloads” from Detroit. Their group is called the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary. You know people are committed to the cause when they rattle off a name like that one!
At three o’clock, bells were rung to mark 50 years to the minute. At 3:05, Obama took the stage and spoke for 29 minutes about the importance of that 18-minute speech given 50 years ago.
The line to pass security finally disappeared when Obama was nearly finished. A few minutes later, crowd reversed in a torrent. The urgency of now fiercely moved on.
What they came to see was done. But it’s important to note what most people who were there actually saw. It couldn’t have been any different in 1963. Most couldn’t see the speakers and didn’t hear the speech. What they saw was one another — clapping, talking, sharing. Here and now. And that was enough.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.