Monday, August 26, 2013

Our March

A very personal remembrance.

We arrived at National Airport and went straight to the Statler-Hilton Hotel not far from the White House.  It was August 27, 1963 and the next morning we would make our way separately to the Lincoln Memorial.  I arrived there early enough to get a front row seat in
Sitting in my first row seat.  
the reserved section at the foot of the steps leading up to the giant statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln.  The crowd (eventually estimated at 2-300,000) was already gathering.  It was as hot as Washington can be in late summer, but no one seemed to be bothered.  I was wearing a suit and never even considered removing my jacket — a different time, for sure.  The prevailing mood can only be described as festive and joyful, the air filled with anticipation. 

Considering the temperature, the assembled hardly needed warming up, but the star-studded array of talent who entertained us while waiting for the main event was stunning.  There was Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary to name just a few.  Headliners were getting us ready for what was to come.  I didn't see my father and traveling companion make his way toward the Memorial, but there are many photos of him walking arm in arm with his fellow March leaders: "The Big Ten". (Check out Kitty Kelly's terrific "Let Freedom Ring") Representing the Jewish Community, he would be delivering his speech immediately before Martin King's.

You can read and hear it at the website dedicated to his life.  I watched him write that speech in our hotel room late into the night of our arrival.  He had been in Europe until days before and the American Jewish Congress (of which he was the President) staff had taken it upon themselves to write what was generously the most pedestrian and clichéd text that you can imagine.  Some still claim to have authored what he delivered, which was not the case.  Their draft just wasn't him and he couldn't possibly have delivered it.  To put that in perspective, Joachim Prinz was arguably one of the great preachers and extemporaneous orators of his generation.  Even reading a prepared text was highly unusual for him, but that day demanded it.  He handed the new speech to a typist on the morning of the 28th, delivering it later in the day immediately following a standing ovation performance by the great Mahalia Jackson.  Reflecting on that especially hard act to follow, he departed from his text by opening with the words, "I wish I could sing".

It was a compact speech touching on a number of themes — President Obama quoted a passage from it about neighbor as "a moral concept" while on his March 2013 Israel visit.  Perhaps the most memorable was this passage:

Dr. Joachim Prinz speaking at the March in 1963
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

It was a message that rang true to a contemporary audience that had directly experienced the sinister role silence was still playing across the land as many Americans so often stood aside in silence as full rights and dignity were being withheld from many of their fellow countrymen.  He certainly was someone who could never remain silent either in Nazi Germany in the 1930s or in his adopted American home.  It is that fundamental aspect of his character that inspired the theme of a forthcoming documentary film about his life.

King's iconic speech was followed by a call for action by Bayard Rustin, the man probably most responsible for organizing the March and certainly it's most important unsung hero.  With the ceremonies concluded, the thousands who gathered so quietly and peacefully turned around to make their way home.  I joined my father at the back of the Memorial where we both drank Coca-Cola.  Today's ubiquitous bottled water didn't exist in 1963.  It was the first time I had ever seen him drink Coke, a beverage he associated with one of his first encounters with the very discrimination that brought us to Washington.  That happened in 1937, his first year in America, when he traveled to Atlanta to give a talk to its Jewish leaders about the plight of their fellow Jews in Nazi Germany.  In one of those curious coincidences in life, at its center was another black Atlanta clergyman named King.

Dr. Willis Jefferson King was the president of the Gammon Theological Seminary and a distinguished Old Testament scholar.  My father knew of his work and it was natural that he would use the occasion of an Atlanta visit to meet him.  They talked for an hour at the school.  Since their time together was brief, he then invited King to his hotel to continue over dinner.  The news of their encounter and that dinner invitation spread, and to my father's great horror the Jewish leaders before whom he later spoke berated him for having had contact with "that nigger".  His dismay and outrage was so evident that his hosts asked if he perhaps needed a drink.  Anticipating a glass of alcohol, my father told them, "I would like nothing better".  They offered instead a Coca-Cola, which he swore to himself never to drink again.  The March on Washington was the perfect, albeit ironic, occasion to break that personal pledge.  (Years later, as a branding consultant, I worked on Coca-Cola and helped the company launch diet Coke and other line extensions.)

Returning to the March, I went back to our hotel while the Big Ten headed to the White House and their widely reported meeting with President Kennedy.  That evening we were invited to a post-March buffet supper in the garden of Senator Jacob Javits' large and elegant Georgetown home.  Many of those who had appeared on the Memorial platform now stood around his swimming pool eating fine food a chatting.  It was at once lovely and surreal.  I don't remember anyone commenting, but the sumptuous setting was certainly at odds with the theme of the day. That disconnect accurately reflected how Washington worked then and, as noted in my recent post, still works today.

My March on Washington experience was clearly rarefied.  I was the son of one of its leaders and featured speakers, a father to whom I was extraordinarily close.  I sat in a reserved section — most people stood throughout the day.  I joined some of the speakers behind the Memorial after its conclusion and had supper with them and other dignitaries at a senior senator's home.  I flew to D.C. and back, while so many people came by bus or carpool.  Even so, the underlying experience was one that we all shared together, regardless of where we sat or stood and how we came to what most of us have seen since then as a hallowed place.  This was a moment of hope, one of those times that one can actually call "inspirational" without fear of exaggeration.  We participated in and witnessed history together.

None of us who gathered on that day could have imagined that in a matter of 3 short months John F. Kennedy with whom my father and the others met would be dead.  Nor did we anticipate that Lyndon Johnson, who played only a supporting role at that White House meeting, would push landmark Civil Rights legislation through Congress setting in motion huge changes to come.  Sadly, that King might be assassinated one day was less of a surprise.  And of course, the last thing than any of us expected was that, on this the 50th anniversary, a then 2-year-old African American would be sitting in the White House.  President Obama is scheduled to speak at the Memorial on Wednesday.

Would that I could say the March ended racism in the United States.  It did not.  Would that the right of every citizen to vote regardless of color or national origin could be guaranteed.  It can't.  Code words, those whispered or shouted euphemisms, existed then and they still do.  "Voter fraud" is one of today's most popular and we all know what it really means.  Obama himself, his being who he is, has reawakened an ugly hatred that we hoped the March and subsequent actions might have put to the "eternal rest".  There is much to celebrate about how far we've come, but also much to bemoan.  In an interview the Times' Adam Liptak asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg "if she was disappointed by the almost immediate tightening of voting laws in Texas and North Carolina after the decision, she chose a different word: 'Disillusioned'.”   Living in one of those states I can, as they say, relate.

Rabbi Prinz speaking in Berlin in 1934
Joachim Prinz delivered literally thousands of speeches in his life, many of them at important occasions and before large audiences.  His courageous voice was loudly heard in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany during the early Hitler Years.  Without question his reputation was made there and provided him memories that lasted a lifetime.  There are people living in Israel and here who still attribute their or their parents' survival to his blunt urgings to get out.  But to him, speaking in something other than his birth language and to a very different audience and country, the March speech was his proudest moment, bar none.  It constituted a concrete connection with the country that he really loved — he never felt at home in Germany.  One might say it affirmed his citizenship in a very powerful way. 

I think, however, that there was something else.  No matter how articulate, how forceful his speeches may have been, no matter how charismatic his personality, the words spoken in the 1930s didn't help prevent the unthinkable.  Some Jews, though clearly not all, heard them and left.   But the German public at large could not be moved.  In that sense his efforts failed.  In contrast a nation of good people listened in 1963.  They listened and they acted.  He and his fellow leaders had a receptive audience that transcended those who stood before the Memorial.  "It is", he said, "not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us" but for the country as a whole.  It's that still valid dream about which Obama talks for a United States of America.  Yes, at times, like Justice Ginsburg, I find myself "disillusioned".  For my father's sake, if noting else, I don't allow that feeling to leave me without the hope that "we can overcome".  More than ever, we need desperately to do so.

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