Fifty years worth of memories have crowded out most of my recollections of the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. I do recall that I was a worried 19-year-old college student assigned to be captain of Bus No. 9 from Boston.
We descended on the Mall in Washington after an all-night ride. As a person of responsibility, I was worried that we would never find the way to our assigned place on the Mall, but then word came from somebody to “guide on Bill Russell.” And there he was, the Celticscenter and all-time great, at 6 feet 10 inches, towering above the crowd, who would lead us where we needed to go.
I grew up in Cambridge after having been born in Boston, got a good education at Cambridge High and Latin (now Cambridge Rindge and Latin), and became a student at Harvard College. My four years as a camp counselor at the Cambridge YMCA had prepared me to be a bus captain. I was young and idealistic yet seasoned in the ways that white society could damage the spirit of a young black man.
We were on a “March for Jobs and Freedom,” as it was officially called. We wanted black people to have the same opportunity for economic advancement as whites. Yet today, just as in 1963, black people are far more likely to be without jobs than whites.
We marched to demand legislative solutions to end racial discrimination in all of its forms, including public accommodations, public and private hiring arrangements, and the right to vote. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act addressed our concerns. And yet this year North Carolina passed a photo ID law whose obvious aim is to discourage voting by black people.
In fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I have sat down in brotherhood with all races in many parts of Georgia, as well as Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and other states of the former Confederacy. But from my home in Guatemala this month, I watched the legal proceedings of the Trayvon Martin murder trial and reflected on the social suspicion that turns walking-home-while-black into an offense for a neighborhood watchman in Florida, another state in the old Confederacy.
It brought to mind the talks that Gus and Olivia Solomons, my late parents, had to have with their sons to hone our judgments and instincts about how to walk — not so tall, but ever so carefully — along the byways of Greater Boston.
I dedicated the dozen years following the March on Washington to participation in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and to training in medicine and biomedical investigation. Then, with only a fraction of MLK’s dream fulfilled, I decided to pursue my own dream, which was to move to a place where I could get the skin-color monkey off my tired and discouraged back. Since 1975, I have been working on solutions to malnutrition in the Republic of Guatemala.
Central America is not without threats to physical safety. Guatemala experienced an earthquake that killed more than 23,000 people in 1976, a year after I got here. For the first two decades of my life in Guatemala, the country was embroiled in a civil conflict, which left a million or more dead, internally displaced, or exiled. Since the signing of a peace pact, the warring parties have increasingly become the tattooed gang clans and drug cartels versus the outgunned and not incorruptible police and military forces.
But for me, neither group conjures the dread that the thought of entering the South Boston — or even the Somerville or Everett — of the 1960s aroused in me. Guatemalans never got the memo that the approach of an American with black skin was a reason to snap your door lock or cross to the other side the street if you were alone, or an opportunity to accost and harass if you were many. The agenda of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and the March for Jobs and Freedom are only partially fulfilled. Freedom will not have arrived until “created equal” and treated equally have merged into a lasting one-and-the-same reality.