The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, fifty years on. What do I remember about it?
I wasn’t there for the speech, obviously. Nor were my parents or any other extended family member. I would be considered an immigrant. I was 2 years old when I moved here to the US with my mother, my father had already moved after my birth. I would consider myself a second generation South Asian, only because my life is shaped and informed completely by my American experience. As a child I remember seeing images of Martin Luther King Jr. and men around him wearing white hats. When I saw those hats, I always thought- “Man there are a lot of Black American Muslims, especially because they filled up that huge space in DC.”
Those “hats” were a lot like traditional hats worn by men in South Asia when they pray. I was a child of immigrant parents form Pakistan (originally from India), and I searched for things that were familiar to both my American experience and my family’s immigrant background. Seeing those hats made me think- Muslim. Seeing that many “Muslims” who were Black, made me feel that there was a space in America for me.
It was later, during middle school, when my dad took me to watch Spike Lee’s Malcolm X that I began to fully understand the complicated dynamics of Black life and the realities of segregation and race relations in the United States. I would go on to read Malcolm X in eighth grade and find myself inspired by a man who became an orthodox Muslim and expressed his American experience. It was also through the analysis of Malcolm that I began to understand the perspectives of other civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., but more importantly the significantly different society that existed back then.
Malcolm denounced the March on Washington, this was prior to his being kicked out of the Nation of Islam and his embrace of Orthodox Islam, the Sunni version. Malcolm called it a “a picnic” and “a circus”. He would later get called out by organizers of the event denouncing the organizers as clowns, “but he’s right there with the clown show.”
Reflecting back on the speech, I understand how this was a significantly triumphant moment for Black America. Its hard to appreciate just how significant it was in our modern reality; its hard to comprehend that only fifty years ago there were laws that prevent people of two races from marrying one another, that told people where they can sit on a bus, where they can drink water, what stores they can shop at and where they can pick up their food from. Fifty years ago it was okay for a mob to threaten to lynch someone, it was an acceptable practice. All because the color of their skin.
It’s easy to become comfortable in our privilege and to even feel a sense of entitlement. We owe so much to these pioneers for marching that day, for the long slow march to that day, the countless individuals who sacrificed and toiled to make the March on Washington DC a possibility. It is a legacy we need to hold closer to our hearts and these are the memories that we need to never let slip from our conscience.
As a country and a people, we have come a long way. But the struggle for equality and justice is not over. New challenges present themselves, as a democracy our duty as citizens is to engage, participate and care about the future of this country. Si se puede!
Check out my post from February 1, 2013- it celebrates Black History month and the place American Muslims fit into that legacy with a look at the anniversary of the President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.