Old black woman on a hot afternoon
Throughout the course of human history there have been those moments that have stood out in bold relief and leave such lasting images that we cannot imagine what the world was like prior to those moments. One of the most enduring moments in my life occurred on Aug. 28, 1963, when a young, southern black Baptist preacher stood at the feet of the statue of Abraham Lincoln and shared his dream.
It was late in the afternoon when A. Philip Randolph stood to introduce Martin Luther King Jr., a man he called “…the conscience of the civil rights movement...” People were tired and restless from the long hot day of speeches. Most everyone was hungry as there were very few food vendors left and everyone had long ago eaten whatever they brought with them. Many people had already started for home. Many of the thousands still there probably stayed because they were too weary to leave. King was to be the last speaker in a very long day of speakers and the crowd seemed more resigned than eager to listen to one more.
Curiously, as King began to speak a respectful hush fell over the crowd. He must have sensed the moment because his voice quavered a bit at first, and then his magnificent basso-baritone sound seemed at first to just drift casually out over an unsettled, eager-to-get-home crowd. Then suddenly, as though a summer storm was about to occur, his voice rolling like thunder burst seemingly from the skies, and the lightning of his words struck: “…We have been given by our government a bad check, a check that has come back marked insufficient funds…” A hush came over the crowd. King also seemed to sense something very different; the crowd and King were joined. He spoke, they cheered; he spoke, they listened; he moved them, they moved him. The rhythms of the preacher and his congregation merged into a symphony as King tolled the litany: “…I have a dream today. . . I have a dream that one day the sons and daughters of slaves and slave masters will sit down together…” On this day, at that moment, we felt we had finally overcome.
There comes a time when an occasion changes from an exciting moment into an historic event. People were all around me hugging each other with tears streaming down their faces. People of all hues and status were talking to each other, smiling at each other. Each of us felt we had walked 1,000 miles over 200 years in that one day. Dire predictions of a day of trouble turned out to be a time of triumph.
My mind flashed back to an old black woman whom we had walked past several blocks ago up on Connecticut Avenue. She didn’t say anything, she just watched silently as we walked by. Despite the unbearable, heat she was dressed in a long black coat and laced-up high-top black shoes common for old folks then. She quietly smiled and the look on her face seemed to say, “I may be too old to walk with you young people today but I am with you, so just keep on walking.” It was one of the most encouraging moments of the day for me. This woman was the first older black person who seemed to be saying to us — a new generation — that we were on the right track.
No day I can remember in my life has had as dramatic or as lasting an impact on the rest of my life as that hot August afternoon.
Bill Perry is an African-American who lives in Peterborough. He was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, where he served as public affairs director of the National Urban League; founder of the Westchester CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) chapter; and founder of CCBE (Council of Concerned Black Executives). He has also been a speechwriter, a poet, public affairs director at the nation’s premier nuclear weapon’s laboratory in Livermore, Calif., and has held corporate positions at IBM, AT&T, and SCM Corp. A consultant in marketing and computer technology, he has volunteered on community boards and conducted seminars. He majored in American Literature at City College of New York. He was the founding chair of the Mariposa Museum board.