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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

King's "March on Washington" Speech

Yesterday I listened again to the speech that the Rev. Martin Luther King gave at the "March on Washington," in the summer of 1963. I do this every few years. It is the climax of a four-hour "concept" music tape that I made years ago, using the sound portion of a videotape. The concept was of Rainbow aspirations in the U.S. (For "Rainbow" you will substitute the highly mistaken word "black," if you share the universal laziness and imprecision of speech and thought.)

Once more I was astounded at how this speech, far from being dated despite its age, instead just seems to grow more powerful with the years. It is undoubtedly one of the two most outstanding orations ever given in U.S. history, the other being of course A. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. And world- and history-wide it is probably one of the three greatest of all time, the third being Pericles' Funeral Oration of 2,500 years ago, the text of which you can read in Thucydides' History of the Pelopponesian War.

Extremely luckily for me, fate arranged things so that, at 32 years of age, I was privileged to be actually present and sentient, at the March on Washington. At the time I worked for the Coast Guard, and its government building wasn't far from the march's route. Either I took the day off or we were given the time off, since it was such a singular occasion and downtown D.C. was literally flooded with the demonstrators. And, as the ranks formed and the procession set off for the Lincoln Memorial, I believed I marched for a while, though I honestly can't say that I was a genuine marcher. For this, in what may have been the highlight event of the entire Civil Rights drive, I was largely a spectator, as I have been to all occasions throughout my life.

In this case I was too awed to do anything else. By that time the Civil Rights effort had been in full swing for at least five years, and things had really heated up in the South and elsewhere. And now here were all those veterans who for years had bucked all those Southern sheriffs and Klansmen and resentful "good" citizens who believed that discrimination against Rainbows was just fine and the way of the Lord God Almighty. And these demonstrators, to a man and a woman, had resisted that Jim Crow ridiculousness and evil all in the best way, non-violently. And now those who had survived that strenuous and harrowing effort so far and were not languishing in their graves or in jails were all gathered here in D.C. in one spot, glowing with intense satisfaction at being in the midst of their compatriots and about to make a statement that they knew would be remembered for a very long time.

I suppose, too, that, since I was there, I heard King's speech straight from his mouth during this, the first time that it was ever uttered. There were big loudspeakers directed at the huge throng that spread out eastward from the steps of Lincoln's Memorial, but I don't remember being focused on the words. Since I was as unlikely to go up nose to nose against a bunch of teeth-bared, foaming-at-the-mouth segregationists as I was to do the same with a troop of baboons, I hadn't been a civil rights worker and wasn't likely to be one in the future. You could say that I just didn't have the guts -- or that I was following a principle that from birth I had always followed when confronted with the Nasties. I fought them by avoidance, whether they were school bullies or whatever, and I've always found that this is the best way of dealing with them. I have found that if I stayed away and totally ignored them, when they discover that I'm not concerned with them they get out of my life soon enough while having inflicted a minimum of damage. Of course the principles that guide these people always remain, but since numerous manifestations of nastiness seem to be hard-wired into the human psyche, unlike in any other mammal or other members of the animal world, I don't know what can be done about that.

All in all I totally admired what these demonstrators had done, and I didn't feel that I deserved being counted in their number. So I hung around in the back of the crowd and snapped a few pictures and just took in the spectacle. It was extremely hot that day, and the throng heated things up even more, and generally it was an overwhelming event, as hearing that speech is nowadays, when I listen to it in the much greater quietness of my age.

There are many other things that I could say about King's 1963 speech. In fact, a whole book could be written about the implications that it invokes, and probably one or more already have.


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