Last Saturday, October 2nd, tens of thousands of people from all over America, including a contingent from Memphis and Arkansas, converged on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the One Nation Working Together march and rally. Whatever their mode of transportation — car, bus, train, plane — we traveled seeking jobs, justice, quality education, and, if we were lucky, a glimpse of President Barack Obama.
The president was a no-show, but there couldn't have been a sunnier, more perfect day for the rally organizers and the throng of men, women, and children — including me and 18 others from Memphis and 19 from Arkansas — who jam-packed the Washington Metrorail that shuttled us to the historic site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a quarter-million people, and the rest of the world via television, about a dream that he'd had.
Forty-seven years later, our group of young and seasoned freedom fighters, teachers, and union members gathered together for a familiar refrain that united those who participated in the 1963 March on Washington: "We want justice." A couple of kids on the Metrorail didn't realize they were setting the stage for what was about to unfold when we all recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
When we got to "one nation under God," the words jumped out at me as I looked around to see blacks, whites, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups, the employed and unemployed, union members, the clergy, and those whose ideas about government may have been different from mine. "One nation under God" was the clarion call that brought us to Washington, tens of thousands of us, seeking to "pull America together and put America back to work."
"This is a defining moment for America. This is a defining moment for this country," MSNBC talk show host Ed Schultz told us. "To our brothers who have been discriminated against, it's time to fight back."
I thought then about the day — August 28th — when members of the Tea Party gathered by the thousands to hear conservative commentator Glenn Beck and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin talk about "restoring honor" in America. Their decision to hold a rally on the anniversary of Dr. King's historic speech was no doubt a strategic move on the part of organizers.
I wasn't at that rally, of course, but One Nation, from my perspective beneath the Lincoln Memorial and on the grounds around the Reflecting Pool, truly brought diverse groups together. I had to be there to witness the splendor of humanity and join the chorus for justice, education, and, most importantly, jobs.
Al Sharpton had his say in August about Beck's rally, but at One Nation, he stirred us, as only a gospel preacher could, with eloquent cadence: "We can do better. Silence is not an option." Some in our group were moved and sprang from their canvas chairs like they were Sharpton's "Amen Corner." The applause rolled from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.
We listened to other speakers as well — some unknown, some familiar faces — such as former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, community organizer Deepak Bhargava, children's rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman, and NAACP president/CEO Ben Jealous. In fact, it was the Memphis branch of the NAACP that chartered the bus that linked us with more than 150 other organizational partners.
The four-hour rally was punctuated with a message to stop the Republicans' and Tea Party members' momentum as we surge toward the November 2nd mid-term elections. We got the message loud and clear.
On the 17-hour bus trip back home Saturday night, we made a pit stop at a restaurant outside of Roanoke, Virginia. Six of us sat around a booth and talked about what we'd seen and heard.
Deidre Malone, the NAACP organizer and owner of the Carter Malone Group, said the rally was "inspirational." Others echoed her opinion. It was inspirational. But inspiration has to be followed by action. Latrivia Nelson, a senior account services specialist for the Carter Malone Group, said, "It scares me to think what could happen on November 2nd if the Democrats don't come out and vote."
Amen to that.
Wiley Henry is a writer, artist, and photographer. He is the former
deputy editor of the Tri-State Defender.