what younger generations
can only read about
The older you get, the more personal your connection with history. Kids read history in books; we of a certain age have lived it.
Last week I heard a college student say that he’s too young to remember 9/11. But that was so recent, I inwardly objected. Even though I can’t remember what I ate for lunch yesterday, I remember every moment of Sept. 11, 2001; my husband and I watched, galvanized, as the story unfolded on our television screen.
A while back a younger friend observed with incredulity that her mother could still remember exactly where she was and what she’d been doing the day President Kennedy was assassinated. November 22, 1963. Anyone born in the 1950s or earlier could remember that day with clarity. As a college student, I was on my way to a music theory class when I learned of the shooting. Stunned and confused, we students clustered in the classroom. The professor arrived, canceled class, and invited us to his office, where we huddled around his radio.
Because of radio and TV, and now internet, you don’t have to be at the location for an event to seize your soul and never let go. I remember watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, delivered Aug. 28, 1963, on the National Mall.
I’d visited Washington, D.C., the previous summer, and attended an open-air production of a Shakespeare play on the mall. As I watched TV coverage of the massive crowd that had gathered, I felt an odd sense of connection. I’d been there. I could imagine being part of the crowd. Yet I was on the other side of the country, in the family room of my parents’ home, ironing. I’d occasionally look up from the ironing board at a tiny black and white TV screen as speakers spoke, singers sang, and preachers prayed. And then MLK. I put the iron down. To this day, my heart churns when I see replays of that speech.
Before his assassination, King had expanded his efforts beyond civil rights to the intertwined, deeply rooted issue of poverty. He was organizing and promoting the upcoming Poor People’s March on Washington when he was assassinated. The Poor People’s Campaign persisted, setting up a 3,000-person protest camp on the Washington Mall, staying for six weeks in the spring of 1968. Some of you may remember that. Most Americans now are too young. Reading about it in a history book is not the same.
Which is why an event coming up Saturday, June 20, is so vital. More than fifty years later, we have a new version of the Poor People’s Campaign. There won’t be a massive march and encampment on the National Mall, but as these times would have it, a “digital justice gathering” nationwide. It’s a “moral march” on Washington, say organizers, who hope to attract tens of thousands of people online. Details are at june2020.org.
Cynics might say, “Why bother? Nothing has changed.” I’m old enough to argue that plenty has changed––just not enough, especially in the area of wealth distribution. We march because we can; we protest because we must. We’ll continue (a) until we don’t need to any longer, or (b) because we can’t.
I prefer option (a).