by John Colgan-Davis
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fifty years….50 years! That is how long it has been. The March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom that brought more than a quarter of a million people to Washington, D.C., on a hot, humid August day will have its 50th anniversary on Wednesday, Aug. 28. It is hard to believe it has been that long, 50 years.
There have been so many changes since then, and so many of them are good ones; there are African-Americans visible now in places that would have been considered inconceivable back in 1963.
Black mayors, black police officers, black hockey players, black physicists, black corporate heads, black students and teachers at prestigious universities, a black President and even blacks living in neighborhoods that had tried to close the door on us in 1963.
When I was a student at Central High School in the 1960s and was visiting white friends of mine who lived near the Allens Lane train station in Mt. Airy, that station had spray painted on the walls of its crossover bridge, “Niggers go home!”
I am a homeowner in that neighborhood now, one block from that station. And Mt Airy is regularly cited as one of the nation’s most successfully integrated neighborhoods. Yes, a lot has changed.
And yes, a lot has not changed. As the George Zimmerman trial, the film “Fruitvale Station” and the numerous police shootings of blacks make abundantly clear, there are still many places and many people for whom the lives of African Americans are still not considered important or significant. And poverty is still a huge problem in African-American communities; remember that the formal name of the March on Washington was “The March on Washington for Jobs and for Freedom.” It was an economic as well as a political march.
Politically speaking, recent Supreme Court rulings and state legislative actions make it clear that none of the rights people fought for in 1963 will stay enshrined without constant vigilance and action. But in looking back at this last week, I wanted to focus on how much things had changed and what life was really like in the United States in 1963. I wanted to get a good look at who we were as a nation 50 years ago.
NPR (National Public Radio) has a great website on that topic, “The Summer of 1963.” You can visit it at npr.org/series/188312863/the-summer-of-63. Through interviews, sound clips, videos and new stories the site provides great insight into what was happening then and how it really felt to be alive back then. I am not going to say much about the specifics. I would love for everyone who reads this to spend some time exploring the site in depth for yourselves.
A couple of things really stood out for me. One was “Shake, Rattle and Rally,” which looked at the role of Black DJ’s in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. And “Math is Kids’ Formula to Success,” which covers the work of activist Bob Moses in starting The Algebra Project to help students get into college.
I hope all of us will spend some time thinking about the March, the Civil Rights Movement and more. We owe so much to those who marched, organized, worked and in some cases died for us, and for that I will be eternally grateful. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and I believe we owe it to them to do whatever we can in whatever way we can to keep the goals of the movement alive in us.
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, teacher and musician with The Dukes of Destiny, the city’s top rockin’ blues band.