Friday, August 30, 2013

March on Washington notebook: What I noticed

White House photo: President and Mrs. Obama, Presidents
Clinton and Carter, emerge from "backstage"
at the Lincoln Memorial
I live and work in Washington, DC, where most weekends see at least three carefully scheduled protest marches, evenly spaced and with maps provided so the locals can avoid them as needed. But this week, the march of marches returned, marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech.

I watched the proceedings through many lenses. The daughters of Presidents Johnson and Kennedy stood on the platform and I saw my childhood represented--these women were my contemporaries-from-afar. The songs and call-and-response conventions of speaking pulled me back into my growing-up years, set against a background of protest marches, songs and legislation to pull blacks, women, gays and lesbians and others into some semblance of parity.

I campaigned for President Carter when he ran for that high office, and he pulled me back into the era this week, slyly admitting that "every handshake from Daddy King, every hug from Coretta, got me a million Yankee votes." Using the nickname made the grand setting more intimate, a nod to the insiders--I didn't hear Dr. King's father referred to any other way, back in the day. Carter gave us another intimate moment when he spoke of the invisible and basic effort he made as a board of education member in Georgia. He convinced other white board members to come out to see all the schools--not just the nice white kids' schools, but the makeshift schools in which black children learned because they couldn't be sent on buses to proper schools. If you fell for the optics and asked why old white men were on the program, it's because they walked this walk alongside the original marchers. As Carter said of his fellow presidents on the platform this day, none of them likely would have been elected if King's speech and the march had not taken place.

I call President Clinton my president because I served as a senior official in his administration, and we were used to hearing him called the "first black president," a moniker that would be shunned by many. I've been able to watch Mr. Clinton advance as a speaker for two decades now, and as a coach of speakers, wish more of us could manage his relaxed, non-anxious way of relating to the audience and sharing tough talking points without being strident. Far from it: He pushed us with the image of "stubborn gates" standing in the way of progress, and urged us on in a era he sees as "brimming with possibilities." Watch his gestures and facial expressions, writ small in a large setting, but speaking volumes.

President Obama had the day's toughest job, and handled it sparingly and with respect. He was humble yet presidential, the right mix, leaving the message to what anyone could see, without putting too fine a rhetorical point on it. The embodiment for many of King's yearning for justice, he barely touched on himself in his speech, saying "I" only rarely and referring to his ground-breaking presidency only elliptically.

His speech had a calm energy and verve and rhythm, with two repetitive riffs where he detailed the progress we've reached "because they marched," and later, talking about where "that courage" has led us. Best for me were the moments where he connected the ordinary people of today--the teacher who spends her own money on supplies for her students, as my niece Valerie has done--with the marchers of the past. For a crowd that listened to the familiar themes and rhetorical devices as comfortably as well-worn slippers, he gave them new running shoes as well, a path forward and a picture of themselves in the shoes of the marchers. On this day, the president spoke for the marchers, past and present, and not himself, and that's what we needed.

And yes, readers, this time--unlike the first march--women were included thoroughly in the program. Even better, for me, was watching the learning unfold on social media as today's marchers and observers learned how thoroughly women were excluded the last time. Progress, indeed.

I love the White House photo I've posted here: a current and two former presidents and a First Lady, all ground-breakers, seeming as small as ants in the shadow of the massive statue of Abraham Lincoln, which loomed in the shadows as backdrop to the day. Living here, you could take that backdrop for granted--but not in a week like this one.

If you found this post useful, please subscribe or make a one-time donation to help support the thousands of hours that go into researching and curating this content for you.