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August 01, 2022

The Most Important Day of Your Life

By Barbara Seeger

Jackson Brown, sanitation engineer for Washington, D. C., moved slowly down the pavement, sweeping the dirt and litter from the gutters. He had been working since 8:00 pm and now in the early hours of the new day, he was nearing the end of his shift. He liked his job. "The best thing 'bout it is I can work in my own neighborhood so's I'm close to home and don't have to catch the bus or metro or nuthin'," he thought to himself.

It also made him feel good that he could do something to keep his own neighborhood clean. He and his neighbors took a lot of pride in the appearance of their area. Some people might not like working most of the night, but he didn't mind. He boasted to his friends, "Ain't no bosses 'round to keep no eye on me, and 'sides, it means that me and Bessie can share takin' care of the kids." Since he usually finished at 4:00 am, he was able to curl up with Bessie for a couple of hours and then she'd get up and get the kids up and off to school. Six-year old Bertha was a morning person and was up and going without any prodding. However, Josiah, older by three years, had to be begged, coaxed and threatened each and every day to leave his warm bed and face the world. Bessie would get them off to school before she went to work as a cleaning lady at the motel. Then Jackson was up by the time the kids returned from school and had supper ready and when Bessie came home, they all ate together.

Jackson sensed something different in the air this morning. He could hear much more traffic on the Beltway even though it was several blocks distant. A sort of humming, buzzing sound, as if the air were charged with electricity. Soon he could hear the murmur of voices in the distance. The voices grew louder and as Jackson was tying up the last bag trash a group of about twelve young people came into view. They were talking excitedly.

One of the young men approached him and asked, "Do you know which way to go to get to THE RALLY?"

"Which rally? They's rallies around here all the time," Jackson responded.

"Why, the big Civil Rights Rally at the Washington Monument!" another young man replied. "Surely you know all about it. Martin Luther King, Jr. is going to speak. It's really going to be important. People are coming from all over. We're here from the University of Maine. A whole busload came."

"That today? I knew Rev. King was comin', but didn't pay no 'tention to when. Ain't no use for me to go -- nuthin' I can do," Jackson mused.

"He's going to get civil rights for all people, especially you colored people," a young woman added. "Some people are coming from as far away as California. It has taken them three days."

"How come y'all want to come all this way? You not even colored. Why do you care?" Jackson asked, leaning on his broom.

"Hey, my name's Robert Barton," the first man said. "What's yours?"

"Jackson Brown."

"Well, Jackson, there's a lot of us, black and white and all colors that think that the situation of many minority races is really bad. It's time to do something. It's been a hundred years since the slaves were freed, and many people still don't have any more rights and privileges than then. But now there is a leader who can inspire people to do something. It's the best opportunity there's ever been!" Robert continued.

Jackson thought back through the years. He had often felt the sting of hate and discrimination from whites. His father had brought the family north, up to Chicago from Alabama when Jackson was only six. In Alabama his family had been dirt poor, and the jobs were menial. Pa had worked two jobs -- one as a janitor in a church and on his own doing lawn work, but of course that was only in the summer. Ma had worked as a maid since she was fourteen when she dropped out of school. The Law in Alabama said kids had to go to school until they were sixteen, but nobody paid much attention to what happened at the colored schools. But they lived on a nice piece of land, and old Mr. Thompson, their landlord, allowed them to put in a vegetable garden. Ma was a whiz at growing things. She managed to feed them well during the summer, and put up fruits and vegetables for the winter. Pa had dug a large root cellar, and even in the longest, coldest winters, they were able to survive. Sometimes only on potatoes, turnips, and carrots, but they did have food. One day Pa came to the school and looked around. He realized that the colored schools were far, far inferior to the whites. He said, "No way. This ain't gonna be enuff.. Kids gotta have a good education or they ain't gonna git nowhere." He decided that what he had to do was head north. Pa realized that education was the best chance for a better life. And residence above the Mason-Dixon line.

A new voice spoke up and brought Jackson back from his reverie. "We'd better get going. The rally is right down in the middle of everything."

Another voice, "Right at the Washington Monument. How do we get there?" The voice belonged to a young woman whose hair was drawn back into a severe ponytail.

"Oh, no problem. Here, let me draw you a map." Jackson pulled out a discarded flyer from a recent protest meeting from the top of one of the bags and began to sketch a detailed map.

Another young man spoke up. "Say, why don't you come with us? This could be the most important day of your life. You might get to see Rev. King up close. You might even get to shake his hand. Just think, you can tell your children, your grandchildren about it. By the way," he continued, "my name's George and this is Maria, and this is Thomas, and this is Lucy ... " as he went through the group he pointed to the different students. Jackson nodded acknowledgment, although there was no way he was ever going to be able to remember all the names.

Jackson thought a long while. It really would be something important. To see Martin Luther King, Jr. Why, he'd never get another chance like this again! The enthusiasm of these young people was contagious. He took a deep breath. His lungs filled with elation and excitement.

"Just let me give Bessie a call to be sure she can arrange somethin' for the kids when she goes to work."

He hurried over to the pay phone on the corner, and dialed his number. The phone rang several times and a very sleepy Bessie answered, "Hello".

"Hi, Bessie. This me, Jackson."

"Jackson! What th' Dickens! What's wrong? You O.K.?"

"Yeah. I gotta chance to go to the big rally where Mr. King gonna speak. I'd really like to go. You think you can arrange something for the kids?"

"You wake me up for some fool idea? Then there was a long pause while Bessie dragged herself out of a deep sleep. "You think that's a good idea? Isn't it kinda dangerous? They's a lot of people that don't like Mr. King and what he's trying' to do. I'm afraid, Jackson. Someone's bound to start trouble. And you know what'll happen. The colored folks'll get the blame. The police will just start whackin' and arrestin' any ol' coloreds they kin get their hands on!

This thought had occurred to Jackson, but he hurriedly explained, "I'm with some white college folks. They've invited me to go along with them. I'll be fine. Bessie, this may be somethin' special. Dr. King, he's a important person. I really want to go. Might be somethin' come of it. Is it O.K.? Do you want to come? Think yore Ma'll take the kids?"

"No, no. I better go to work. Boss say if we don't show up today, we're gonna be docked two day's pay. Yeah, I'm sure Ma or Lida B. will watch the kids. Just remember everythin' so's you can tell me and the kids. Yeah, it'll be special. Just you min' you take care," she added.

"I will, Honey," Jackson replied. "Thanks."

Jackson returned to the group. "She mad as hell at being waked up. Scare her to death to get a phone call so early in the mornin'. But when I tole her why, she say it's O.K. She fin' someone to take the kids."

The group hurried on toward the center of the city and the Washington Monument.

"How come y'all 'way out here such a long way from the Monument?" Jackson asked.

"Our bus driver wouldn't bring us any farther. He said he didn't know the place, and he wasn't planning to get stuck in a traffic jam, or have some fanatic loonies wreck the bus," one of the young women answered.

The conversation continued in high spirits; ever so often the group would break into a loud and enthusiastic rendition of "We Will Overcome".

During a lull, Jackson asked, "Where 'bouts did you folks say you come from?"

"We're from the University of Maine, up near Bangor," George answered.

"Is that very far?" Jackson continued his questions. Geography was not one of his strong suits, although he did remember that it was the state 'way up in the northeast corner.

"Well, it's not as far as California or even Florida, but it's a VERY long bus ride. Took us over twelve hours to get here," George continued. "It was a pretty exhilarating ride. Nobody slept. We were all singing, and cheering, and making speeches, and giving pep talks."

"None of y'all black?

An embarrassed silence. Robert spoke up. "Er, no, couldn't get any to come. Not too many of the students are black," he admitted sheepishly.

The group continued on for a while somewhat subdued. The sky was growing light in the east. As they walked along, many others joined in and soon the streets were thronged. By the time the sun rose, the streets were choked with people. It was hard to move. Jackson and the students from Maine fought and struggled to get as close as they could to the platform from which Dr. King, Jr. would speak. Jackson felt the crowd press against him and he and the others pushed back. But it was futile. Many enthusiasts had arrived days before and camped out, slept in any nook or cranny they could find, taking turns holding spaces for friends. When Jackson heard this he was amazed. He had no ideas of the importance of the event. After all, protests and demonstrations and speeches and such happened almost every day here in D.C.

And there were still many hours of standing, sitting and waiting. The speeches began about 9:00 am and went on and on. Jackson drifted back into the past. Had things really been better in the North? Hard to tell. Certainly people were less aware of color, but they were also less aware of individuals. In the South there was no way he could sit in the front of a bus or a movie theater, or eat in a white restaurant or drink out of a water fountain marked "WHITES". But when they moved North, no one cared when the kids were hungry, Ma took so sick, and Pa couldn't find work. And even so, it was a fact that some motels and restaurants suddenly had "no vacancy" or "no tables available" if a colored family showed up.

Jackson tried to remember every tiny detail of this day so he could tell it to Bessie and the kids. He wanted to remember it for the rest of his life. The weather at the end of summer in Washington, D. C. is usually very hot and muggy. August 28, 1963 was no exception. And being packed so tightly in a crowd made it worse. Jackson had never before felt so confined. He didn't really know the meaning of the word "claustrophobia" but he was experiencing it.

There were not enough toilets. The lines were endless and the wait eternal. Many were not concerned about propriety and were relieving themselves elsewhere as discreetly as possible. Jackson could not bring himself to that. There were times that demanded privacy. So he joined the herd at the privvies. As he stood in line patiently, a young white man crowded in ahead of him.

"Sorry, Buddy. This is an emergency," the young man explained.

"That's O.K.," Jackson replied, although he wondered why the man had chosen to break in front of him. Was it because he was the colored person nearest to the door? He remembered the numerous times that he had been invisible -- standing in line waiting for service and the clerk would look right through him and beckon the next white person to the counter.

Water was scarce. Many had brought beer, and although it quenched the thirst, it often led to arguments and fights. He was grateful that the group he was with had not brought any alcohol.

The many food vendors were taking advantage of the situation by jacking up their prices. Jackson looked at the price of a hot dog. "That'd feed the whole family a meal," he realized, horrified. And it was a fight to get to the vendors, and most of them had run out of food by mid-day.

Jackson was glad that he had been "adopted". The students from the University of Maine had been prudent enough to bring food, drinks, and canteens of water, and were more than willing to share with Jackson. Speaker after speaker filled the air with words. Noon came and went. Sweat-soaked blouses and shirts stuck to tired and weary backs. Even the trees hung motionless in the still air.

The hours dragged by that day. Joan Baez sang "We Shall Overcome", and Peter, Paul, and Mary rendered "How Many Times Must a Man Look Up ..." Not even the singing and speeches lessened the tedium. The crowd grew restless. Jackson listened to the words of hope and inspiration and wondered. He had heard them so many times. And what had this magnificent rhetoric brought about? Nothing, as far as he could tell.

The sweltering heat and the long hours of standing took their toll. Many became ill or fainted. The medics were kept busy.

At last it was time for the Rev. King to speak. The crowd listened intently. Indeed it was a stirring speech.

"I have a dream that 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 ...

"...when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at Last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!' "

When Martin Luther King, Jr. finished speaking the crowd was silent. Then it broke into cheers and singing. Jackson was awed by this man, his words. He felt inspiration and hope. He felt humbled and proud at the same time: humbled by this man; proud at last to be black. Perhaps this really was the dawning of a new day.

The crowd began to break up and straggle away. By this time exhaustion had overtaken most of the marchers. The participants were much more subdued. The going was very slow, and it was growing late. Jackson realized that he would not have time to get home before his shift began. Maria collected the remains of the food and offered it to him. There wasn't much left, but Jackson accepted the bread, cheese, apples and one very warm Coke as a token of their friendship. Jackson pointed the group in the direction where the bus driver had told them the bus would be. The group bid weary farewells and shook hands with him. What was there to say?

"So long, Jackson. This has really been a day."

"Yeah, history was made today."

"Things are going to be different from now on."

"Wasn't it great?"

"Take care. Be seein' you," Maria added, but everyone knew they never would.

Jackson couldn't think of much to say but, "Thanks for takin' me along. I 'preciate it. I'll always remember this day -- and y'all."

Robert added thoughtfully as the group walked away, "How long will it be before 'the Dream" comes true?"

It took Jackson quite awhile to get through the crowd and back to his neighborhood. It was well past 8:00 pm when he started his shift, but Jackson commented to the lamp post, "Ain't no one gonna check on me this night!"

A gentle breeze picked up. It was very welcome after the long, hot day. It picked up bits and pieces of trash and swirled them down the street..

Jackson leaned on his broom and surveyed the streets and walks. Garbage, dirt, filth were scattered everywhere. In his ten years on the job he had never seen anything like this. Paper bags, bottles of all kinds, beer and soda cans, candy wrappers, apple cores and banana skins. It was going to be a long and exhausting night. No way would he finish by 4:00 am. But it was worth it. After all, wasn't this THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY OF HIS LIFE?

-- Barbara Seeger

Editor's Note: The full text and video of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech can be found here.

Article © Barbara Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-02-04
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