Opinion | What Martin Luther King. Jr. Day recalls in Washington, D.C.
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The third Monday in January is a day when we usually revisit the scenes of pivotal events in the long, often bloody struggle for human equality in America: a bus boycott in Alabama, the lynching of a boy in Mississippi, the murderous attacks on the Freedom Riders in In the Deep South, children were cursed and spat upon as they were sent to court-ordered white public schools. Today we’d like to bring the memories closer to home, to the city and counties in and around DC, a region that is more than just a focus for the national government; it is also a set of communities in constant flux: growing, generally prospering, open to change and progress.
But many people who live here, mostly of a certain age, can honestly say, “I grew up in the segregated South,” by which they mean places like Fairfax and Arlington counties, Alexandria, Prince George’s, and even Montgomery. . County. It wasn’t Alabama, but sometimes it could feel a little like that for black people.
Sometimes it was a matter of law, as in Virginia, where many school systems remained segregated long after the Supreme Court in 1954 outlawed such practices (even DC public schools didn’t desegregate until the court made that ruling). , and where black passengers might have to ride in the back of a bus when it passed through Virginia.
But so much of the code of conduct that governed daily life for Black and White was not spoken or written. It was simply understood, a matter of habit, immutable and silently threatening to transgressors. It was the repetition day after day of petty insults that slowly crushed the spirit and sense of a common humanity. At the motor vehicle office, a white woman might be addressed by the clerk as “Mrs. Smith, the black woman behind her in line as “Mabel.” A black construction worker on one of the often growing suburban Washington projects he would have to stand at the end of the lunch counter and get his food in the deli, to eat wherever he could find a seat.
It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of good-hearted, well-intentioned people who wanted to stamp out this petty tyranny of one race over another. In 1939, the great opera contralto Marian Anderson was denied permission to perform in this city’s Constitution Hall because of her race. A prominent Washingtonian couple named Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing instead from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where an interracial audience of thousands witnessed one of the most moving events in local history. But a greater one would come on the same scene. In 1963, the 100th year since the Emancipation Proclamation, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would lead a massive civil rights demonstration at the memorial. There was considerable nervousness in Washington area communities and many people chose to stay home from work. But instead of an upset, there followed a jubilant crowd of thousands, Black and White, who once again gathered around the reflecting pool in front of the Abraham Lincoln statue for an afternoon of song and speech.
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In The Post’s newsroom, several television sets were assembled for editors and reporters to monitor the proceedings as they went about their work — noisily, as usual. But as Mr. King spoke, at the end of the program, much of the newsroom noise faded away and people stopped listening to the words as he began to hit the high notes – “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin,” and concluded with the lines from a black spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
The heavens did not open that afternoon; there was much sadness and turmoil in the years that followed, along with surprising progress. But the venerable doctor had preached a sermon for the ages – words that helped bring hope and change to the country and to this community of ours, where he found his stirring pulpit.
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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based on the Opinions section and shared by the editorial staff.
Editorial Board members and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic politics and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governorships); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).
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