*Oklahoma City’s Carter G. Woodson Elementary School, August 28, 1963. After our usual morning class devotion—recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer and a ragged but spirited rendition of “Oklahoma” (it’s the only state in the union whose official song was adopted, in 1953, from a Broadway musical written by Rogers and Hammerstein), our teacher directed one pupil to lower the classroom window shades and another to switch off the fluorescent ceiling lights while she turned on the black and white television.
Today, she announced to her ever impressionable third graders, we wouldn’t be doing classroom work. Instead, like every other classroom at Woodson, and no doubt, every Negro school in the city and even the nation, we were going to watch something called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
I was just seven years old, but even at that age I harbored a clear disdain for school. No reading, writing or ‘rithmetic? All day? The March had already liberated me.
The teacher explained to us what the March was all about. While we didn’t quite understand, initially, we were excited. It wasn’t often that we watched TV during school hours, and its sound and glare, associated with anywhere but school, presented a thrilling novelty.
We sat at our desks gazing at televised images of what seemed like millions of mostly Negroes (actually estimated between 200,000 and 300,000) packed in at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial. It was fascinating.
However, when the first of various speakers began to address the crowd, most of us had to fight off sleep or resist the urge to whisper and pass notes. Of course, when laughter is restricted, everything becomes funny. We managed to keep it down.
I perked up when singers and musicians made their way to the podium, which was always so crowded with organizers and officials that the singers performed with people standing right next to them.
I was familiar with the folk act Peter, Paul and Mary; their performance of “If I Had A Hammer” got our attention, because of the imagery of the lyric and the fact that it sounded like a nursery rhyme. Bob Dylan didn’t interest us. When you’re a child, your interpretation of everything is literal, and to us, Dylan literally could not sing.
However, a hush came over the classroom when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson took the mic. In the ‘60s, Jackson’s stardom transcended “church music;” her mainstream success reached beyond the Negro community, spanning the globe. Like the success of the then fledgling Motown Sound and Sammy Davis Jr., Jackson represented what we could be. Her soulful rendition of “How I Got Over” washed the classroom in a wave of pride.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the podium, we were all ears. We, like every Negro in America, knew this man was important to us. I remember being struck by the man who introduced him to the crowd, announcing him as “Martin Luther King—J.R.,” pronouncing those letters as opposed to saying “Junior.”
I won’t pretend to have had any real interest in much of King’s speech at the time—I was seven–but I do remember that when he came to the “I have a dream” part, he found a rhythm that let even us children know that he’d found a groove.
I paid attention to our teacher, slightly smiling to herself as she watched King. At one point, she removed her glasses and cleaned the lens, before taking the tissue to her eyes.
We didn’t know it then, but we were witnessing live the fiery delivery of what would later be called the greatest single speech of the 20th century, certainly one of the most famous speeches of all time. Generations around the world know the hallowed phrase, “I have a dream.”
Fifty years since the March on Washington, designed to bring attention to the Negro’s life of inequality in America, I’m wondering if the most vital parts of King’s “dream” will ever come true. I can recall not so long ago, black Americans my age routinely declaring there’d never be a black President of the United States…”not in OUR lifetime.” We understood this and were okay with it.
And while the two terms of Barack Obama surely signifies progress made in America, ironically, it took the accomplishment of the nation’s first black president to remind us just how racist this country remains.
At some point in his magnificent speech—the original draft of which he abandoned when, at the shouted urging of Mahalia Jackson, he simply began to preach—King said: “ I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I might feel differently tomorrow, but today, as I write this, I just don’t see that happening. People are still too consumed by hate and ignorance. Then again, perhaps if I say, “At least, not in MY lifetime,” then maybe that part of King’s wish will become reality. We can dream.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]