Saturday, January 14, 2006

I was there too, Kirk. Sorry I missed you.

On the Front Porch (scroll down) of the Independent Weekly, managing editor Kirk Ross remembers being in the swelling, sweltering crowd on the Washington Mall one day in August 1983:

It was the 20th anniversary of that day in 1963 when the world got its clearest glimpse to date of the essence of the man and the truths he shared with us all--truths that still had the power to stir souls and cause those gathered to stop and listen.

It is a stunning experience, and a strangely personal one, to stand among a half-million people who suddenly go silent and still. For many of us it was the biggest crowd we'd ever seen or may ever see, and yet for those few minutes--a speech in a day of speeches--we were all alone with our thoughts.

I was quite literally alone in the crowd--I wandered up from my Alexandria home, whether by bus or car I've forgotten, but it was an ordeal to get there. I may even have missed the playing of King's speech, for what I remember most clearly is something else: Stevie Wonder singing his heart out in "Happy Birthday, Martin," with tens of thousands of us singing along. Knowing me, I am sure that I cried.

For me, living and working up there, the day was remarkable for its out-of-time strangeness. This was Reagan's Washington. I'd been clerking for a corporate law firm, where it seemed that most often I was asked to research the question of "whether a savings and loan company is allowed to do [x]." Invariably, I found the answer to be yes. Not till much later did I understand my small role in the S&L crisis. My once and future boss, Ross Perot, not a man long on abstractions, was challenging Maya Lin's phenomenal Vietnam Memorial, installed the previous year, with the idea of a representational one. He had help from interior secretary James Watt, who hated Lin's design so much that he had refused to issue a building permit for it until the plan for the "Three Servicemen" memorial was added as a compromise. And the very idea of a national holiday in honor of King was still, after John Conyers had introduced it 15 years earlier, being hotly debated: the 20th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington and indeed Stevie Wonder's "birthday" song were contributions to the cause. It wasn't until early 1984 that "a fiercely reluctant President Reagan inked the law that made Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday," and only then under threat of veto. Jesse Helms had filibustered the bill.

For an aspiring yuppie like me, daily life meant three-piece suits with big shoulders, lunches at lovely exotic restaurants, and tedious commutes up and down the beltway. The Washington Mall on August 28, 1983, seemed a long way from 1963. And so, I'm very sure that I cried.

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