“Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Having worked in D.C. and lived in Alexandria since 1961 when I came to work for Robert Kennedy in the Justice Department, I’ve experienced the First Amendment in real time action, by assembling and petitioning my government for redress of grievances.
In 1963 my wife and I stood near the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. pleaded to the world for civil rights for all people, and delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. About 250,000 people — black and white — peacefully gathered in the nation’s capital to plead for President Kennedy to provide 19 million Afro-American descendants the right to vote, travel, and work.
Fears abounded. The D.C. police and FBI were present on the streets. There were altogether over 8,000 guardians of the peace. The federal government and many businesses were closed. Hospitals canceled elective surgery so all beds would be available for riot-related emergencies. Jails were emptied to provide room for predicted arrests. Judges were on around-the-clock standby.
These precautions were not necessary. The assembly was non-violent. People arrived from all over the world and marched with dignity. Many swarmed around the Reflecting Pool in a field of humanity that ran all the way to the Washington Monument.
On that day we listened to the greatest orator of his time pleading for racial justice, claiming that the time had come “to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood,” calling for “the fierce urgency of now, ” then urged on by Mahalia Jackson, departed from his prepared text and segued into his immortal plea, “I have a dream,” that reverberates still in the hearts and minds of all decent people.
The New York Times called the event “the most impressive assembly for a redress of grievances in America’s history.” The Washington Post reported that the assembly was a happy combination of prayer meeting, picnic, and political rally, a crowd “united in a sense of brotherhood and common humanity.” The next year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
Unfortunately, many of the social injustices deplored on that summer day in Washington, D..C, have not yet been overcome. But Aug. 28, 1963, was a seminal moment in American history. It demonstrated the power and dignity of democracy in action.
In 1971, the scene was more fractious when my wife and I joined Vietnam War protests on the streets of Washington D.C., a gathering which was rougher and more proactive than the 1963 event. We were gassed, with many others, near Dupont Circle by police overreacting to the noisy protests. Eventually the public demonstrations worked. The war was ended, too late, but it might not have ended when it did without these public protests. Critics of the war hastened the end of it, and resulted in a president leaving politics.
In 1986, my wife, daughter and two human rights activist friends, the late Pat Derian and Rose Styron and their daughters marched on a sunny day near Congress in a sea of women who came from across the country to support the ERA. But this time their pleas were not successful in terms of reaching the goal that gave rise to that march. But peace prevailed and eventually the goals they asserted then have been advanced in major ways.
On Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, an estimated half million Americans filled the streets of Washington, as did huge crowds in other cities in America and around the world to claim rights they felt were disparaged by the Trump campaign and election. The Saturday crowds far surpassed Friday’s relatively insignificant inaugural crowds. President Trump now argues about the relative size of his crowds — those applauding his election, and those crying out against it.
My children who attended here in D.C. and other locations reported a cheering good spirit, upbeat communal behavior, welcoming friendly law enforcement officials, filled bleachers, and an upbeat camaraderie.
Now what remains after people returned to their homes away from Washington, D.C. is the question: how does this experience change the future? Will the energy become harnessed into a movement that changes politics? We all ponder that question, bravo to the people who are trying.