The Slow Burn of Change

Today is the 50th anniversary of “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

mlk-march-on-washingtonThe 1963 march drew over 200,000 people, at that time the largest demonstration ever held in the nation’s capital. Security was tight for the event. On duty were 5,900 police officers, 2,000 National Guardsmen, and 4,000 soldiers. The sale of liquor was banned in Washington D.C for the first time since Prohibition.

Many of the organizers and those with spots in the program had spent years, decades even, fighting for civil rights. They had been subjected to threats, beatings, numerous arrests. The keynote speaker, Martin Luther King Jr., had been arrested nearly 30 times himself.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has since been immortalized, but it was not the only speech given on that hot summer day. Mrs. Medgar Evers led a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” that included Rosa Parks; remarks were made by the National Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis, now U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district; and speeches were given by Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and others.

A. Philip Randolph in 1963
A. Philip Randolph in 1963

Note the prophetic words spoken that afternoon by A. Philip Randolph, an African-American civil rights leader who was the March Director:

The months and years ahead will bring new evidence of masses in motion for freedom. The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle, but a new beginning not only for the Negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life. Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.”

When you consider that we still face many of these same issues, it seems that little has changed in five decades.

On this same day, in 1917, ten suffragists were arrested while picketing at the White House. They held signs that read, “Mr. President, what will you do for Woman Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” I don’t know about liberty, but it seems that many women are still waiting for equality.

Lucy Burns in prison, 1917.
Lucy Burns in prison, 1917.

One of those suffragists was a woman named Lucy Burns. She co-founded the Congressional Union and the National Woman’s Party. She spent more time in prison than any other American suffragist, and the story of her activism behind bars, and the brutality she endured, is compelling and inspiring.

We are often asked to salute those who have risked their lives on the battlefield of war. Today is a good day to remember and salute those who fought on another kind of battlefield, people like Lucy Burns, A. Philip Randolph, Dr. King, and thousands of men and women whose names you’ll never hear, who marched, went to jail, risked their lives and sometimes lost them, to confront inequality and injustice.

And when we are discouraged that change takes so long, we should keep in mind that the forces which propel social change grow stronger over time, so change is certain. Each succeeding generation embraces a piece of the change that the previous generation resisted.

Sometimes change is a slow burn, simmering beneath our everyday consciousness, a subtle fire that moves over ground imperceptibly, but surely, and if temporarily doused, is always capable of rekindling itself  . . .

There were times when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

– Sam Cooke


What happens to a dream deferred?

On this date, 47 years ago:

Some 200,000 people were gathered for “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” an event that was more of a rally than a march. They stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where the great man in white marble looked down upon them, and where the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, uttered these historic words:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

According to biographer Anthony Scaduto, young folksinger Bob Dylan, who was to perform that day along with Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and others, while in a private moment, looked over to the Capitol with a skeptical eye and said, “Think they’re listening? No, they ain’t listening at all.”

Hope and optimism was in the air. The times they were a’changin’. Yet, Dylan had already sensed the dark days ahead.

Only some listened and the country paid a heavy price: riots ignited in cities across the country and the cities went up in flames to the chants of “Burn, Baby, Burn!”, assassinations, student protests over the war in Vietnam turned into violent melees – unrest was as much the tenor of the times as peace and love.

In 1951, the great African-American poet, Langston Hughes wrote:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I remember a day in April of 1992: I stood on the roof of my building which offers a panoramic view of the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black cloud. Smoke. Plumes of smoke rose from locations all over the city. I went downstairs and on TV was Rodney King, the man savagely beat by the policemen whose acquittals had sparked the riots. Rodney King was speaking to a group of reporters. He looked confused, overwhelmed, like a man caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare. He said, “Can’t we all . . . just . . . get along?”

It seems so simple. If we could just get along . . .

Another Buddhist blogger, Adam, at Fly Like A Crow, wrote yesterday that he was tired of talking about race. I left a comment on his blog, agreeing. I am tired of talking about race. I am tired of racism. I am tired of everything having to be an issue. Tired of no one listening and everyone shouting. I am tired of young people dying in wars that should not be waged. I am tired of terrorism, and really tired of what it has done to our lives and our politics. I’m tired of the way that we can’t get along.

I changed my mind about that comment. I realize now that I can’t stop talking. We can’t be silent when there is injustice in the world. No matter how weary we may be, we can’t give in to complacency. We are interdependent, so when one dream is deferred, all of our dreams are deferred.

The former Mayor of Los Angeles, the late Tom Bradley (an African-American) once proposed the rather controversial idea of taking kids out of the ghettos and barrios and putting them into camps where they could get the kind of education and exposure to positive thinking they deserved. The problem he said was that many children, African-American youth especially, didn’t know how to dream. After being beat down for so many generations, they had lost the ability to dream. Their parents didn’t teach it to them because their parents had not taught it to them.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream and almost fifty years later the dream is still deferred for too many Americans. Hate crimes are on the rise. The nation is a battleground and the ominous signs of violent confrontations once again are on the horizon.

Yesterday I also read a piece by Katie Loncke at The Buddhist Channel who said she disagreed with the notion that smiling at strangers on the subway is resisting militarism. But that is just the sort of thing that many people can do in the midst of their busy lives to keep talking. We don’t have to open our mouths to communicate. It seems to me, from my experience, that a smile can be a pretty powerful thing.

Loncke talked about inner work and outer work. I don’t know what that means. The work is both. There is no duality. In Buddhism we call it esho funi – self and environment are two but not two. However, the environment itself is really one. We all share the same environment, this world. When we strive to make it better for others, we’re making it better for ourselves, too.

We need to keep talking, but even more importantly, we need to listen. We should be like Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, the Hearer of the Cries of the World. We need to lay down our soldier arms, lay down our barbs and jabs, our hate and selfishness – lay down these arms so that we can embrace our brothers and sisters, so that we can smile and hold them close, and hear their cries, and smother those cries with our understanding and compassion.

First smile, then listen, and then talk . . .We cannot continue to defer this universal dream.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream . . .

If you have never watched or heard the complete speech delivered by Dr. King on August 28, 1963, here it is:

This is Bob Dylan with Joan Baez at the March singing “When The Ship Comes In” along with a snippet of Dylan doing “Only A Pawn in Their Game” (both songs introduced by the late actor and social activist, Ozzie Davis):