A Memory of Solidarity Day, on Juneteenth, 1968

The sight of the crowd gathered in Washington, D.C., for Solidarity Day, on Juneteenth, 1968, seemed to say that Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s dream remained alive after his death.Photograph by John D. Bunns Jr.

To many Americans, the public outpouring over racism that has been taking place in America since George Floyd’s murder feels like a long-postponed renewal of the momentous reckoning that shook the nation, and then ebbed, more than half a century ago. That instant was one of the first memories I have of this country; my family had been living abroad, most recently in Taiwan. We returned when I was eleven, to Lake Barcroft, Virginia, a white middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C., just a few months before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. What I can recall most clearly is the sense of tragedy that instantly befell our new home.

My parents were white California liberals. They spoke often about King and the struggle for civil rights. I suppose they were trying to prepare us for the racism that existed in our country. I was one of five children: three of us were white, one was Asian, one Hispanic. Racism was not only an abhorrent concept; it was the antithesis of who we were as a family. The speech that Robert F. Kennedy gave in Indianapolis a few hours after King was murdered made my parents cry. The last time I could remember seeing them so stricken was in Taiwan, when I was six, and John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated.

A week after King’s death, my father took me for a drive around Washington. I recall it being a Saturday morning, and what my memory carries is the two of us driving slowly through empty streets, seeing the devastation of the neighborhoods that had been torched and plundered in the previous days of rage and despair. I don’t remember anything else, not even what we said, except that my father was not angry, only sad, at what we saw.

Later that month, with my parents’ encouragement, I volunteered to sell bumper stickers for the Poor People’s Campaign, which King had been organizing when he was killed. The campaign was coming to Washington, my parents said. Some three thousand people from different parts of the country would arrive in caravans and live in Resurrection City, a tent encampment set up on the Mall. There would be a march to the Lincoln Memorial. If King hadn’t been killed, he would have led it, they told me, but now that task fell to his widow, Coretta Scott King, and the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Excited to be allowed to participate, I went out to sell my bumper stickers, going house to house, ringing doorbells. The stickers, which I was to sell for a dollar apiece, to go toward the campaign’s expenses, were black and white, and printed with King’s phrase “I have a Dream . . . One America.” But I managed to sell only a few; my parents made me stop after two people had chased me away from their front doors. One threatened to unleash his Dobermans, and shouted “Fuck you!” I had not heard the term many times before; certainly no adult had ever said it to me. I was frightened by the dogs, shocked by the hatred, and disappointed that I wasn’t allowed to continue, but felt a child’s pride in the effort I had made.

The whole family went to the march, on what was called Solidarity Day. It had been originally planned for May 30th, but was postponed to June 19th. That was Juneteenth, the date that Texas became the last state in the Confederacy to learn that the Civil War was over—two months after Lee’s surrender—and that enslaved people were, officially, at least, emancipated—more than two years after Lincoln had issued that proclamation. We walked through Resurrection City, a bedraggled place full of people and purposeful activity, and joined a great crowd on the Mall, stretching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. I had never seen such a sight, and it seemed to say that King’s dream not only remained alive after his death but had become more viable.

A slew of famous people spoke that day, in addition to Coretta Scott King and Ralph Abernathy. Bobby Kennedy, who had suggested that King bring the campaign to the capital, had himself been assassinated just two weeks before, in Los Angeles, but the remaining Democratic Presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey addressed the crowd; Humphrey was booed. Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers, gave a rousing speech. Eartha Kitt sang and spoke in Spanish—Latino groups also took part in the campaign. But the person I remember most vividly was Rosa Parks—I knew who she was and what she had done, and was awed by the sight of her. There were statements of grief and of anger, but also of reconciliation and unity, and the hope that, like the song we sang said, we would overcome.

We didn’t. The next day, the police fired tear gas into Resurrection City. On June 24th, the day the campaigners’ permit expired, a thousand police officers raided the site and dismantled it, arresting more than a hundred people, including Abernathy. A few weeks later, my family left the country again, this time for Indonesia. I remember feeling relieved to be going.

The Poor People’s Campaign soon ended, after renewed unrest in the city, and more arrests. King’s hope to have Congress take up an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans was not realized. There has been much progress since then, of course, but it has been fitful, to say the least, and now, fifty years later, we’ve come from the unabashed, open racism of George Wallace’s Presidential campaign to Donald Trump’s dog-whistles. Echoing that time, Trump warned, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and threatened to turn “vicious dogs” on protesters outside the White House.

Last week, the President said that his first in-person rally since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic would be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma—on Juneteenth. Coming after his Tweets opposing the Pentagon’s mooted plans to rename military bases named for Confederate generals, the announcement of the date seemed intended as a provocation. So did the venue: from May 31 to June 1, 1921, Tulsa was the site of the worst racist massacre in American history, which left thirty-five blocks of black-owned homes and businesses burned, and as many as three hundred African-Americans dead. Trump backed off the date, but his rally will go ahead a day later, in Tulsa.

For three and a half years, many Americans have acquiesced to the fact that a race-baiting tormentor is their President. Some seemed to think that an appeal could be made to his better nature, that he could be persuaded to be civil and inclusive, to be Presidential. That capacity just isn’t there; there is no better nature. But now another moment of national reckoning has arrived and, come November, there will be another chance to achieve a better country.

Jon Lee Anderson