Following the Footsteps
Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington, a Madisonian finds herself back where she started
Milele Chikasa Anana
This past august, i was one of sixty veterans asked by the National Conference on Civil Rights to lead a segment of the 2013 march from Georgetown Law School down and around through several streets to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. We led some 2,500 people in a tightly knit movement. Quite literally, there was nowhere to move. We were just swept along with the crowd, very similar to what we experienced during the 1963 march we participated in fifty years ago.
It was a painful and arduous walk for us veterans, as we are now in our seventies and eighties. We shuffled. We struggled. About halfway through, two marchers, unknown to me at the time, held me up and pulled me along with the crowd, determined to get me to the National Mall. They asked a police escort for help. The three of us piled into a pedicab, which took us away from the march to the reserved gate for selected guests. It was the only route the pedicab knew. Once we were inside the grounds, the golf cart took us to the VIP section. We sat in white folding chairs right at the steps of the Memorial. Now I realize that the golf carts were available not for exhausted people like me, but for the King family and the hundreds of celebrities, members of Congress and prominent Washingtonians that the three of us would sit among.
I was a stone’s throw from Oprah and missed my chance to get a photograph with her and other dignitaries because I was without my camera. As a photojournalist, I carry a camera and notebook everywhere I go. Apparently one of the marchers rescued my belongings back when I was struggling. When I returned to my hotel late that night, my camera and traveling money were there intact. I feel my camera is anointed. It has been lost and retrieved before. Since it has this superhuman quality, I wish it had shown up when Oprah, the King family and others were around.
Of the sixty veterans, twenty of us wore wine-colored banners, indicating that we had marched in 1963. That banner brought me a notoriety that I had never anticipated. A continual chorus of gratitude. For the “sacrifices you made,” many would say. Some cried. Some embraced me with long, warm hugs. Some kissed me. There were never-ending requests to take pictures by people from all over the world. For a change, I was on the other end of the lens.
I later learned that the two angels who rescued me in the heat of the march were Kirsten Thomsen, a physician’s assistant from Maine, and Crystal Ingram, a teacher from California. After the march, they hailed a cab and took me to the historic, gilded Willard Hotel, where Dr. King finished his “Dream” speech. The dinner was expensive, and I was embarrassed because I had no money or means.
Déjà vu, I said to myself. I realized that my predicament was similar during the 1963 march. Back then, I got on a bus to Washington with total strangers, without money, without an overnight bag, without credit cards, without a camera, without knowing exactly where I was going or whom I would be with or how my meals would happen. I took a ridiculous risk in 1963 and here I was doing it again fifty years later. In 1963, I had a sense of comfort and satisfaction after the march was over. That same contentment returned in 2013 in the company of these two newly met friends.
Milele Chikasa Anana is publisher of Umoja Magazine.