EL PASO – I was there 50 years ago on the Washington, D.C., Mall when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Monument challenged the conscience of America with four words, “I have a dream.”
That was also the beginning of my understanding of the black experience in America. A child of the capital’s white Maryland suburbs, I had just graduated from high school. There were only two African American students in my class. I had a summer job at the famous Discount Records and Books store near Dupont Circle owned by Bob Bialek, busting boxes in the basement for 30 cents an hour.
Bialek was my dad’s childhood friend. They grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended Central High School. They were both left-wingers in the 1930’s when the Communist Party was the only political organization that included equal rights for people of color in its platform.
Bialek found me in the record-store basement and ordered me to take some time and go to the Mall to hear King speak. The event reminded him of hearing Marian Anderson, one of the most renowned singers of the 20th century, sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. “Ask your dad about it,” he said.
My dad, Leon K. Smith, was the editor of the Central High newspaper. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall because she was black, he wrote an editorial condemning that decision and suggested that Central High could be an alternative venue for the concert. In those days, high schools were, more than universities, the centers of student activism.
The school principal was outraged when he read the proofs, my dad told me, and he personally threw the lead-type page on the print-room floor, scattering the type. My dad thought that was the end of the story. But that night, the school janitor, who naturally was a black man, saw the proof. He picked up the pieces of type and put the page back together. The story was printed.
Central High did not host Marian Anderson. President Roosevelt opened up the mall for the concert and Bialek and my dad listened to the great contralto in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
The year after Dr. King’s speech on the Mall, I drove with a buddy from Washington, D.C., to Mexico City to attend college at the University of the Americas. Driving through the segregated south, I finally realized what Dr. King was up against. It has taken time for America to catch up with Dr. King’s dream and although we have a black president, the dream, is not yet fully realized. Oppression has a way of finding new victims.