“Somebody marched for you, somebody marched for you.”
The woman repeated the words quietly with just a little steel in her voice. Some others in the room underscored her comments, with cries of, “Uh huh, tell the truth now.”
The salt-and-pepper-haired Greek chorus was part of an intergenerational group which included the young man the woman directly addressed.
The occasion was a public forum about the legacy of the civil rights movement and the passing of the torch to a new generation of activists. The woman was responding to the young man’s earlier remarks. He told the group that while he appreciated the sacrifice of the folks in the civil rights movement, he didn’t share the emotion and passion of the people in the room who lived through some of the perilous times. There were new issues, he emphasized, issues that marching would not fix.
I think back to that exchange as I reflect on this Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Motivated by what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as “the fierce urgency of now,” 250,000 people rode buses and trains, walked or drove to the nation’s capital for the march. It was August 28, 1963 and they had come to protest segregation, and to lobby for equal opportunity.
Few of the thousands gathered there thought marching alone would fix anything. And that’s what the woman wanted the young man to understand. The marchers who walked from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial that day bore the brutalities and indignities so he didn’t have to.
Six years ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama acknowledged the connection while speaking at a civil rights event in Selma. He said, “If I don’t know anything else, I know this - somebody marched for me … It is because they marched, that I got the kind of education I got, that I got a law degree, a seat in the Illinois senate and, ultimately, in the United States senate. It is because they marched that I stand before you here today.”
Now 50 years after those marchers stood in the hot sun to make their voices heard, thousands will again travel to Washington to honor them by standing where they stood. There will be bell ringing and speeches, and ceremonies too many to name.
But I think the best tribute might simply be to remember that somebody marched for me, and for you, too.