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No, I’m America

The March on Washington in 1963, when 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall

“Nobody was shooting at me. I wasn’t afraid of being arrested at any moment. And that was the first time in several years that was true. I felt part of America because I felt this was the real America, the America of ideals.”

John Lewis has been in the news. It’s made me think of a project I worked on several years ago to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington, the Civil Rights gathering where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I had the privilege of interviewing several of the organizers, as well as many people who attended.

One of the interviews has stuck with me more than the others. It was with Larry Rubin, who had been working in the South registering Black voters with SNCC, the organization that at the time was the leading edge of the Civil Rights movement. “I had been beaten up, I had been arrested. The goddamn racists, they said they were America. At the time, we didn’t say, ‘No, we’re America.’”

His work was often solitary and dangerous. In a word, he felt outnumbered. But at the March on Washington he saw 250,000 people all together, all supporting his cause. “For probably the first time in my life,” he told me, “I felt part of America.”

“Nobody was shooting at me. I wasn’t afraid of being arrested at any moment. And that was the first time in several years that was true. I felt part of America because I felt this was the real America, the America of ideals.”

I think my interview with Rubin has stuck with me because of its narrative power. A young man, a Jewish Philadelphian, working in the South to advance the Civil Rights movement. What loneliness; what alone-ness. How many restless nights did he have, wondering if he should return to his home? And then he journeys to D.C. and sees ... a community. Each of those 250,000 people gave Rubin the message: I am with you.

For the same project I interviewed Joyce Ladner, who was 19 in 1963. Like Rubin she had spent time in the South registering Black voters as part of SNCC, but she spent the summer of ’63 assisting Bayard Rustin, the organizing force behind the March. She told the story of how, after almost all of those 250,000 had left, there was just a small group that remained. She recalled, “We stood there and crossed our arms and sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ together. Probably a dozen and a half people. ... All of those people had come out, but they were gone. And here we had enough people that you can put in four cars and send back South, and that’s your movement in a way. Your hardcore group of people who were going back into the toughest battle.”

Once, John Lewis was part of that small hardcore group. He was beaten up by the police. I’m sure that at times John Lewis felt despair; he must have felt outnumbered, as if the real America would never change. But now he lies in state in the Capital Rotunda.

Keep reading: "Music for Social Change"


By Ben Nussbaum. Click here for more!

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