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The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Credit: Unseen Histories / Unsplash.com

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Credit: Unseen Histories / Unsplash.com

A Day of Joy: Remembering the First March on Washington

August 28, 2023

A Day of Joy: Remembering the First March on Washington

My parents told me that we all had to stand together, to be a part of helping make our lives better.

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By Sheila H. Gill-Mebane

I was 11 years old, in elementary school, when my parents took me to the 1963 March on Washington. We walked 3 1/2 miles from our home in Southeast Washington, D.C., to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a beautiful day, with the sun shining brightly. I remember walking down East Capitol Street and everyone was in a joyful mood. We all just wanted to come together and be a part of the experience. We were making history.

And we were joyful because we felt that we had a real purpose, a community purpose. The Civil Rights Act had not yet passed; our voting rights were not guaranteed. But my parents encouraged me by telling me there would be better days ahead. They told me that we all had to stand together, to be a part of helping make our lives better. Two years later, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had been made into law.

We were joyful because we felt that we had a real purpose, a community purpose.

But that day we were only hopeful such a thing would come to pass. And we were especially excited that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was going to speak. He was so good at bringing people together, especially Black people. We knew he believed that we should stand in unity and fight for our voting rights, and that we should give back to our communities. We had seen Dr. King on our black and white TV — but to see him in person, well that was definitely inspirational.

I remember the music, too — Peter, Paul and Mary were there and sang “If I Had a Hammer.” We all listened so intently, and sang along. It was so hot that a lot of people sat right on the reflecting pool with their feet in the water. But no one was discouraged from doing what they had to do to cool off. It was very peaceful.

The reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, 1963 March on Washington. Credit: Unseen Histories / Unsplash.com
The reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, 1963 March on Washington. Credit: Unseen Histories / Unsplash.com

Fifty years later — in 2013 — I participated in the anniversary march as a member of Delta Sigma Theta. That was another great day, and we sang again — “We Shall Overcome.” We still had hope. We knew we had to commit to making an impact. Many of us were educators. We understood the issues and knew we had to serve and make sure our young people and all the people around us knew how important it was to be informed voters and to work for justice.

This 60th anniversary of the march — this year — feels different. Because of the rhetoric of the last president, because he did not accept his defeat or allow a peaceful transfer of power, we have a more divided country. But I am hopeful that the Justice Department will hold everyone accountable. No one is above the law, and there are no exceptions to the rule.

I want more people to commit to civic duty, to be more involved and engaged in their communities.

Marchers on this anniversary will surely come together to demonstrate our commitment to integrity and justice. That is where I find my joy, in fighting against the chaos that last president created. I believe we will eventually get justice.

And I find joy in the civic contributions I make through my union, the Washington Teachers’ Union, where I am treasurer of the retirees chapter. I find hope in my service through Delta Sigma Theta and by volunteering at the phone bank for the Democratic party. I want more people to commit to civic duty, to be more involved and engaged in their communities, in registering to vote and understanding that their vote counts.

That’s what will make a difference, despite the challenges we face this year. I hope the marchers in 2023 get fired up to bring their activism back home and to make a difference. And I hope they find joy in solidarity and promise, just as I did 60 years ago.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

Sheila H. Gill-Mebane

About the Author

Sheila H. Gill-Mebane is a retired teacher and school counselor. She worked for the District of Columbia Public Schools for 33 years, following in her mother’s footsteps.

Civil Rights Movement

The Share My Lesson team has highlighted free lesson plans, activities and classroom materials that you can use to teach your students about the Civil Rights Movement from the March on Washington to the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the Gay Liberation Movement.

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