FORTY years ago, on 28 August 1963, I went on the Washington March along with Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Sammy Davis Jnr and about 250,000 others. I was a teenager on my first visit to America, working in Baltimore as a temporary typist and cold-calling for a beauty parlour.
|'I HAVE A DREAM': Rev Martin Luther King addressing the civil rights marchers in Washington on August 28, 1963
I had learned quite a lot about racism in the two months I'd been there. Back home we were so monocultural that people didn't have much opportunity to demonstrate their bigotry, though I was well aware of prejudice against Jews and Protestants. I had met more blacks than most people living in Ireland: when I was about three my father introduced me to one of his black students, who found my incredulity hilarious. After that, there were other students; my brother's debating partner was African and a Nigerian history student was a pal when I went to university myself. These were all prosperous visitors who posed no threat and therefore evoked little hostility.
In Baltimore things were different. Racism and segregation were the norm. "I wouldn't allow Negroes in a swimming pool; they're too unhygienic," said my first employer, who had been extremely kind to me. But it was the beauty parlour that turned me into an activist. On my first night, I and the other two or three new recruits were set to telephoning women to offer them a free introductory treatment. On my first call, I had a taker, and was warmly congratulated. Then they read the name and address. "Ah," said the supervisor. "Now she's a Negress. In future, you should offer Negresses an appointment just on Tuesdays or Wednesdays." (How were you supposed to know? Easy. Black and white Baltimorians talked very differently.)
If she had told me to put the phone down when I realised I had a black woman on the other end of the line, I would, no doubt, have stormed out. But the line was that everyone was treated equally in this salon; just at different times. And there was little typing work available, I was too young to be a waitress (alcohol laws) and the beauty salon was all that was between me and starvation. So I stayed. Uneasily.
Then I heard about the civil rights march. "May I have Wednesday off?" I asked. "Why?" "To go on the Washington march." The supervisor was very civil as she explained that if I didn't turn up on Wednesday evening I needn't ever turn up again.
When you attend important events, you often don't notice what becomes historically important. I can't remember Martin Luther King's speech: there had been many men making speeches and I expect I'd become rather bored. But I vividly remember the white truck-driver who shattered my naivety by telling me he was only there because he was a Teamster and had been instructed to turn up.
What stayed with me most was the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. I can still hear her rendition of I've been 'buked and I've been scorned ("Children, I've been buked and I've been scorned/Tryin' to make this journey all alone/You may talk about me sure as you please/Talk about me sure as you please/Children, talk about me sure as you please/Your talk will never drive me down to my knees").
"The button-down men in front and the old women in back came to their feet screaming and shouting," wrote a journalist. "They had not known that this thing was in them, and that they wanted it touched. From different places and different ways, with different dreams they had come, and now, hearing this sung, they were one." It was this extraordinary response from all of us there
I can still hear Mahalia Jackson's rendition of 'I've been 'buked and I've been scorned' that caused King to improvise the 'I have a dream' peroration that still reads so magnificently today.
The peacefulness and dignity of the marchers had a profound and positive effect on public opinion. So too, unintentionally, did the bomb thrown into a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a couple of weeks later, which killed four girls and injured 21. And in another striking example of the law of unintended consequence, the murder of President Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald (no, please, don't send me letters in green biro about how Oswald never dunnit) in November, brought into power that great fixer, Lyndon Johnson, who strong-armed and bribed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act Kennedy could not have got through.
Martin Luther King was a great man who abhorred the political violence that would also claim his life in 1968. Last Thursday, at a commemoration ceremony, his widow Coretta said: "We must make our hearts instruments of peace and non-violence because when the heart is right, the mind and the body will follow."