All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
[ The Freedom March on Washington, D.C. 1963]
The Washington March was to begin at 7:00 A.M. on August 27 1963. Because of the seven-hour time difference, we planned to begin our supportive march at midnight on the twenty-sixth in the park across from the embassy.
The crowd, much larger than any of us expected, stumbled around in the dark greeting and embracing. I heard American voices which were new to me, and saw Guy arrive laughing with a group of young Ghanaian friends. At eighteen, he had a long history of marches, having participated in political protests since he was fourteen.
Alice and her Rhodesian friend appeared carrying sticks which had oiled rags wrapped tightly at one end. They would be lighted as we began our vigil.
Farmers and junior high school teachers, Black Americans on holiday in Accra, and some Peace Corps volunteers swelled the ranks. We had begun to wonder about Julian, who was late. Those of us close to him knew that was unusual, since he was always punctual in political matters.
The general atmosphere was festive, with little bursts of laughter exploding in the humid darkness. We had lighted some fire sticks when Julian arrived. He called a few of of us away from the crowd:
— Dr. Du Bois is dead.
His face in the flickering light was grey-black and his voice was flat.
— I don’t think we should inform everyone, but you all should know.
Alice, pragmatic and direct, said:
— Well, what timing. He had a full and useful life and I think we should tell everybody. They’ll feel more like marching.
We agreed and fanned out carrying the important news to the congregation. Sound became muffled as if Dr. Du Bois himself had appeared and ordered immediate quiet from the group. Suddenly someone whose voice I didn’t recognize began singing:
“Oh, oh, Freedom, oh, oh,
Freedom, oh, oh, Freedom over me.
And before I’ll be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my God
And be free.”
There were a few mumbles of opposition in the crowd. “This is a political demonstration. Why are they singing that Ole’ Time Religion stuff?”
The detractor was drowned out as voices joined the soloist. We were singing for Dr. Du Bois’ spirit, for the invaluable contributions he made, for his shining intellect and his courage. To many of us he was the first American Negro intellectual. We knew about Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. We were proud of Louis Armstrong and Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes. We memorized the verses of James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Countee Cullen, but they were athletes, musicians and poets, and White folks thought all those talents came naturally to Negroes. So, while we survived because of those contributors and their contributions, the powerful White world didn’t stand in awe of them. Sadly, we also tended to take those brilliances for granted. But W.E.B. Du Bois and of course Paul Robeson were different, held on a higher or at least on a different plateau than the others.
We marched and sang thinking of home and the thousands who were marching in Washington, D.C., and many of us held in our minds a picture of the dapper little man, sporting a vandyke beard, perfectly groomed, who earned a Harvard doctorate before the end of the 1800’s and who said in 1904, “The problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of the color line.”
Dawn drifted in on a ragged file of damp and worn out marchers. During the early morning hours, a West African tropical downpour had drenched us and sent us scurrying to cars and trees and doorways. The African marchers said they could have forewarned us. They knew that a driving rain always followed the death of a great soul.
— God weeps?
— Of course not. It is the way the spirits welcome a great soul to the land of the dead. They wash it first.
We had walked in the dark, through the flickering light of oil sticks, protesting American racism and extolling the indomitability of the human spirit.
But daylight brought a hard reality. We were in fact marching against the American Embassy. It was a large impressive building made more impressive by the marines who lay belly down on its rooftop pointing shining guns in our direction.
Our lines had diminished through the night. People who had jobs or children or appointments or reservations had slipped away. Although there had been an agreement that we would march in relays, I was happy that none of the Revolutionist Returnees had left. Julian was still trudging along like Sisyphus on his unending climb. Bobby and Sarah Lee walked together chatting in the way of old marrieds, calm as if out for a morning stroll. Lesley and Jim Lacy remained, their faces still showing youthful anger. Vicki, Alice, Kofi Bailey, Guy, a few Black Americans I didn’t know and some Ghanaians continued walking. Everyone stopped, as if on signal, when two soldiers came out of the embassy door carrying a folded American flag. They stepped smartly to the flag pole, ignoring us, and began the routine movements of raising the banner.
Someone in our group shouted:
— This isn’t Iwo Jima, guys.
— You haven’t taken Bunker Hill, you know. This is Africa.
The incident fed energy to our tired bodies and we began to laugh. One of the soldiers was Black and during the ceremony, no doubt nervous, the soldiers fumbled and the flag began to sag toward the ground. It was the Black man who hurriedly caught the cloth and folded it lovingly into the White soldier’s arms.
Some of us jeered:
— Why you, brother? What has that flag done for you?
— Brother, why don’t you come over here and join us?
— That flag won’t cover you in Alabama.
The soldiers finished attaching the flag and began drawing the ropes. As the flag ascended, our jeering increased. A careful listener could have heard new vehemence of our shouts. We were scorning the symbol of hypocrisy and hope. Many of us had only begun to realize in Africa that the Stars and Stripes was our flag and our only flag, and that knowledge was almost too painful to bear. We could physically return to Africa, find jobs, learn languages, even marry and remain on African soil all our lives, but we were born in the United States and it was the United States which had rejected, enslaved, exploited, then denied us. It was the United States which held the graves of our grandmothers and grandfathers. It was in the United States, under conditions too bizarre to detail, that those same ancestors had worked and dreamed of “a better day, by and by.” There we had learned to live on the head of burnt matches, and sleep in holes in the ground. In Arkansas and Kansas and Chattanooga, Tennessee, we had decided to be no man’s creature. In Dallas we put our shoulders to the wheel, and our hands in God’s hand in Tulsa. We had learned the power of power in Chicago, and met in Detroit insatiable greed. We had our first loves in the corn brakes of Mississippi, in the cotton fields of Georgia we experienced the thundering pleasure of sex, and on 125th Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem the Holy Spirit called us to be His own.
I shuddered to think that while we wanted that flag dragged into the mud and sullied beyond repair, we also wanted it pristine, its white stripes, summer cloud white. Watching it wave in the breeze of a distance made us nearly choke with emotion. It lifted us up with its promise and broke our hearts with its denial.
We hurled invectives against the soldiers’ retreating backs, knowing that the two young men were not our enemies and that our sneers did not hide our longing for full citizenship under that now undulating flag.
In the early afternoon, Julian, Alice, Jean Pierre, Dr. Hunton and I walked past the nervous eyes of guards and into the embassy. The calm first secretary, standing in for the absent ambassador, accepted our written protest and told us he would see that it got into the hands of the proper authorities. He smiled and said a chummy:
— My wife is marching in Washington with Reverend King. I wish I could be there.
The ceremony was unsatisfactory. We joined the once again large crowd of marchers and explained what we had done, and the march was over.
I went home alone, emptied of passion and too exhausted to cry.