This month we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Additionally, the entire nation is going through a period of adjustment, partly in response to the post-Zimmerman trial debates about being black in America, judging from the analyses seen on CNN and in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Interestingly, there is also an ongoing public dispute between Jay Z and Harry Belafonte – and the fallout has raised some old and new issues.
I vividly recall the summer of 1963, when my consciousness was being awakened about being a Negro, and that this was my time to join the movement. Just two years ealier, Miami had been “invaded” by an entire cohort of Cuba’s professionals, professors and other upper- to upper-middle-class exiles, not refugees, and it felt like the civil rights era was passing over our community in South Florida, lost to the government’s response to Fidel Castro’s revolution. I wanted to get involved to help Miami, my little part of the world.
I was only 13 that year and my parents would not listen to my plan to join three other young people from my neighborhood, ages 17, 19 and 21, who had invited me to drive up to Washington with them.
I just knew I was going to be allowed to join the demonstration and demand for our rights to a greater share of the American promise. That’s what we were responding to as the purpose of the March.
It was led by A. Phillip Randolph, a man who was much admired in my household, and I could not imagine not being there.
By my folks said, “No way,” and I had to watch the March on television, seething over my lost opportunity to be on the front lines. I harbored a resentment against my parents for many years because of what I thought was their lack of vision.
At least that’s what I thought, until I became a parent myself and was able to re-evaluate the merit of my argument to them. Bottom line: I was only 13.
But I recall that Harry Belafonte was on the front lines on that Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963, along with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Phillip Randolph and many others who became celebrated civil rights heroes and remain so to this day.
The original call for the march was to address wage and labor disparities – and not just for black folk – and 50 years later, we still recall Martin’s dream as the centerpiece of the event. History will correct itself, perhaps in another 50 years.
But most of the civil rights activists present at that time continued to contribute their time, treasure and talents to ensure passage of various kinds of legislation, championed under Lyndon Johnson’s administration and which are enjoyed today by me and successive generations.
Those civil rights old-timers, many still living and still active, cut across all sectors. That was during the days when almost all of our major entertainers could be counted on and be seen taking the lead in our causes. They sang out a song about love between our brothers and our sisters all day long.
Now we have the new ones.
Jay-Z, a rapper, and other popular artists who have recently gained fortunes from their talents that appeal to worldwide admiration and followings, are under pressure to step up as Belafonte and his peers did 50 years ago.
Maybe it should be that entertainers – and that includes professional sports figures – today should not be held to the same standard of enlightenment as their predecessors of half a century ago. That would be like expecting every one of the descendants of the Nazi Holocaust to feel like victims. Oh, wait! Let me correct myself. There is that “lest we forget” cry that the Holocaust victims community rally around resulting in monuments, museums, educational programs, millions of dollars raised in support of Israel and its vast military (one of the best in the word), etc.
On another thought, I believe it is the duty of every person in this country who claims to be black, African American, Negro, the N-word, mixed-race – matters not what you call yourself but what others call you when they see you – to raise your voices, raise your fists and raise your dollars in support of the agenda that was clearly laid out in the summer of 1963: to March on until every right inured to us, the founders and builders of this country, is assured.
Maybe y’all can give us a new song that would lift up the rest of us on our ongoing march.
Antonia Williams-Gary may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org