Jewish World Review August 29, 2013/ 24 Elul, 5773
The way it was
By Paul Greenberg
How could I have been so wrong? Protesters? These folks, black and white together singing We Shall Overcome? They could have been going to church in their Sunday best. Look at the faded old back-and-white television pictures of the march: the men in coat-and-narrow-tie, their snapbrim fedoras firmly in place. The women decked out in their matronly best, topped off with those wonderfully floral hats that completed the go-to-meetin' ensemble.
I don't think I ever saw Mrs.
Mrs. Mays was the founder, sponsor and guiding spirit of a young people's group that had a name like the
Mrs. Mays once gave me an official-looking certificate proclaiming me an Honorary Negro Father. The term Negro is declassé today, but I was kind of proud of my certificate. Still am. It is no small thing to be a father of any ethnicity. Now all these Negroes -- and a lot of us honorary Negroes, too -- were gathering by the hundreds of thousands in the nation's capital.
I looked at the television coverage and was ashamed of what I'd been worried about. These people hadn't gathered to threaten the Republic but to fulfill it. And they were supposed to be threats? Where could I have gotten such an idea?
I knew where. I'd spent too much time in a graduate seminar working up a paper on the Bonus March of 1932, when veterans marched on
Instead, the great general ordered a full-scale attack. For even then he was given to fatal flights of hauteur. One of his subordinates, a major named Patton, led a cavalry charge against the vets, complete with tanks and drawn sabers. The infantry advanced with bayonets and gas masks at the ready. (Another of the general's subordinates, a
The chaotic scene was just what a dedicated band of Communist infiltrators had hoped for, picturing the Bonus March as this country's own October Revolution. It was not to be, Americans being Americans and Communists being the deluded lot they are.
A lot of Americans had feared the worst when the March on
The choice by then, he explained, "was no longer whether Negroes came to
"The most consistent quality of white America's experience with the Negro is that almost nothing happens that we--or perhaps even he--expects to have happen. Faithful to that tradition,
The naysayers, the criers of doom and destruction, the fearful and panicky who believed every racial stereotype of the Negro as wild savage ... all were confounded. And so was the kind of white guilt that fully expected to reap the harvest of revenge that the Negro's treatment had sown year after year.
This elder statesman of American labor, the aging leader of the most dignified of black professions -- the sleeping car porters with their own code, dress and dignity -- explained that the object of this great demonstration was to "imbue the American colored man (with) a sense of his own responsibility and power." Which is just what it did.
It was the black press that got it right. To quote the
The language used to describe the marchers at the time -- Negroes, the colored man -- has changed over the past 50 years, and not necessarily for the better. The truth that now quaint language captured hasn't changed at all: The march was a spiritual victory. An act of auto-emancipation. Shape the spirit and all else will follow. That's the moral of this story: Never underestimate the power of words -- or of the Word.
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