My mother was a child of the sixties. Actually, she was a child of the fifties and a young adult of the sixties but she loves to say that she was a child of the sixties because it has more snap. More gravitas. Being a child of the sixties means that you were possibly part of the beautiful muck of change, a fist in the air, a lifted voice. It means water hoses, and back seat bus rides. It means Motown, and Stax Records, and protest songs. For my mom, it means all these things, but none of this has anything to do with her wearing “child of the sixties” like a perfectly placed beauty mark. What matters most to her, is the time she spent at the March on Washington.
My mother was eighteen, had been out of high school for two years, and had taken a job in the mail room of an insurance company in Washington, DC. At the time, a job in the mail room was pretty much a standard entry point into the corporate structure for black women, unless, of course, they were interested in being teachers. But my mother was working on her degree, which happened to be in education, and was paying for it herself, so this mail room job was her golden ticket to her classroom, fully equipped with hope and glass ceiling.
As she worked tirelessly sorting envelopes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s reign as the face and leader of the civil rights movement was reaching its apex. His name was barreling through every city slum and southern town, dancing on the lips of most young African-Americans and furrowing the brows of all Jim Crow subscribers. So when my mother heard the rumors of King and his team organizing this now legendary march, she went to her father, a farmer who worked construction in the city during the off-season, and asked him if he would escort her. My grandfather’s response was a resounding, no. He believed that Dr. King was nothing more than a misfit, a young and irresponsible loud mouth who would step on the wrong foot — the wrong white foot — and would ultimately lead the people to more trouble rather than triumph. It was a classic case of generational dissonance. My grandfather was the grandson of a slave. A man who worked the cotton fields, and stepped off the sidewalk whenever a white man was walking toward him. He lived a “good life,” one of God, family, and food, and didn’t see any reason to draw attention to his separate, but what he always saw as sufficient existence.
But my mother wasn’t concerned or discouraged by her father’s disapproval, nor did she advocate for living in fear. She was going to go to the march anyway, but not before she asked her sisters if they wanted to come. She knew this was something important, something her siblings needed to see. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite feel the same way. Her older sister wasn’t interested. She just wasn’t the boat rocking type, though she agreed with the mission of the movement. My mother’s younger sister was, quite frankly, too young to care. So after three refusals, my mom worked up the nerve to head downtown by herself.
The people were everywhere. Everywhere. As far as the eye could see — people. Oh man, I can still picture all the busses coming in from everywhere, folks pouring out. Blacks and whites headed down to the mall. Once I actually got there, I was standing too far back to see him, but you could hear him loud and clear. It almost felt like I could’ve gone all the way to my house and still would’ve been able to hear that voice. Ah, what an incredibly haunting voice, and when he was talking you didn’t hear nothing but…him. That’s it. Nobody else. It was as if everything else in the world had gone completely silent. No one spoke. No one fooled around. You didn’t even see a piece of trash on the ground. Not one single scrap. It was something. It was really something.
That hour or two my mother spent at the march changed her life. She went back to work the next day and for the first time felt like she could do more than just sort mail. She said she had a different sense of confidence, a different kind of courage. The march had given her persistence a jolt, and she knew from then on, nothing could stop her.
My mother ended up getting her degree in education. And even though it took her twelve years to do so, she never became a teacher. Instead she stayed at that insurance company, worked her way out of the mail room, worked her way out of every room until she sat in the executive office, the first African-American and the first woman to ever hold that position since the company formed in the 1800s. And though that was an incredible accomplishment, it isn’t the thing she’s most grateful for when it comes to the march. The gift given to her by that day, that experience, that movement, that she cherishes more than anything, is the ability to share moments with her kids and tell the story over and over again, beginning with, “Baby, I’m a child of the sixties.”