50 years ago, I wasn't there. But I was close. At age 6, my options were limited. It was really only one thing that stopped me from being on the Mall in Washington DC. One thing. One formidable thing: my father.
I grew up in the suburbs of DC. Our neighborhood was squarely in what then was middle class. Moms for the most part were stay-at-home. Dads went off to the office every morning with a kiss; kids went off to school with a packed lunch (and also a kiss), plus, in my case, the admonishment to be a good girl. Most of the neighborhood voted for Kennedy, and were staunch Democrats. Divorce was basically a nonentity; the only single household in the neighborhood was headed by a widow. Most families were of Jewish heritage. All were Caucasian.
My parents were a little different from their neighbors. They'd been born to Jewish families, but each, for reasons of their own, had renounced their faith. When they married, they searched, together, for some place to hang their beliefs. They settled on The Ethical Society. When kids came along, we were raised in Ethical Humanism. There was acknowledgement of our Jewish heritage, in that we lit a menorah, and ate latkes and rugalach, but we never attended synagog unless we went with friends. Instead, we went to Sunday school at the Washington DC Ethical Society. We learned that all people were created equal, and had only some minor confusion when one of us smuggled a bible to our Sunday School class, and created a dilemma for the Ethical parents parents, who had been busy teaching us about anything but our Judeo-Christian heritage, which they had rejected. (But that's another story.)
When the Civil Rights movement began, the adults at the Ethical Society were right on board. While we kids were learning about Buddhism and Taoism, our parents were following the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King. Some from the Society went to join the movement deep in the south -- the equivalent of of Ethical Mission service. We followed. We believed. We sang "We Shall Overcome" and meant it.
But that sultry August before I entered second grade, we knew something special was happening close to us. We knew Dr Martin Luther King, the man with the amazing voice of the cause of equality, would be in our town.
I don't remember all that much of the build-up to the actual March for Civil Rights. I was not yet seven, and my parents had guarded me from some of the horrors that had occurred in our country. But I do remember hunkering down on the steps, eavesdropping on my parents as they discussed the upcoming event. My mother desperately wanted to go down to the Mall, along with several other adults from Ethical (as my parents referred to their Sunday gathering spot.) But such was life at the time, that she wouldn't go against her husband's wishes. My father, while he believed in the cause, was a realist. He was convinced that there was a real possibility of violence at the March, from the "meat-heads". He refused to let his wife go, and was adamant that his children not attend.
I remember my mother weeping quietly. Happily, my father's worries proved unfounded. The march remained peaceful. But I still remember how my mother's eyes shone as we all sat around our RCA radio, and shared moment when Dr Martin Luther King spoke of his dream.