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JEAN SHEPHERD—TRAVEL BOOK March on D.C. (3)

d.c. march button

I must say, parenthetically, I have never in my life—including several big operations in the army, including a lot of organizations I’ve seen in various other armed services and great events that happened in other cities—I’ve never seen anything like the way the city of Washington handled this thing.  Absolutely—I imagine in the end this is going to be a picture-book classic among control and preparation for a vast event.  Fantastic!  And every last man that I saw involved in this situation—the police, the MPs, the Red Cross people—was in the most wildly great, holiday mood.  You just don’t expect it from officials.  Everybody cheering when you came in.  I don’t know how much of this has been reported!  I haven’t seen much of it reported in the press.  I think because few reporters came in as a marcher.  That’s right.  They went in days before and stayed at the hotel and that morning they took the big cab down to the Lincoln Memorial and sat behind the ropes.  And started a report.  No wonder that in history, the point is always missed about what happened.

We came into the city.  One of the moments I will never in my life forget—I just won’t, I know it.  Coming into the outskirts of Washington in this bus.

D. C. distant view

Tired, boy, have you ever ridden six hours on a cross-town bus!  Wow!  And that seat was like a rock.  And we were sweating and the sun was beating down and we arrived and there was a cop waiting for us in a white helmet.  The police were to take groups of six busses, with a police escort, to the proper place where they were to go—each group of six was assigned a place.  It was fantastic.  All the busses were lined up for blocks.  And what was intriguing was to find, slowly, everybody in the bus was beginning to thaw.  Up to that point they expected officialdom and all that—and they found that officialdom was as much on their side as anybody.

We took off and rode along one of the main streets through the slums and there were hundreds of people on the steps.  Little old ladies, grandmas, skinny kids, tough-looking guys, nuns, everywhere we went they were sitting on the porches waving.  Not the kind of waving that says, “Go give ‘em hell,” just with a strange, happy, “We’re glad you’re here, how are you.”  Just unbelievable feeling all the way through, all out there on the steps and streets waving and everybody in the bus was waving.

We finally arrived at the place where we parked on a side street, and this was a strange moment.  We’d stopped a couple of times at gas stations on the way down but when we got out, everybody was bent over stiff-legged and bent over sideways.  The back of your neck was hurting and immediately about forty-five people had to go to the john.  We walked around and somebody said, “Let’s go to that building over there.”  It was a big, gray, official-looking building, and people started to go down the driveway that had big trucks and guys working there who were not connected with the demonstration.

The instant the people started to go down the drive the workers there escorted everybody in where they could get water: “You want any coffee?”  They’re cheering you on.  “Yeah, come on!”  We went in and everybody got water.  It was a very odd experience to have people really concerned about you!  They really were worried: “Gee, do you want to sit down?  How about some coffee.”  They were just guys working at that building.  “Hey, have some coffee.”

coffee cup

We walked out onto the street and went toward the area where we were going to assemble and march.  But it was not at all the way I would have imagined a demonstration or any other kind of event would be run.  You’re walking on the street and it was like you were suddenly with a million old friends.  It was like a family reunion!  A strange feeling, and there wasn’t one moment that was phony about it.  I had people step on my foot and say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, excuse me.”  A man standing in front of me when there was a big thing going on said, “Can you see now?”

And one of the great moments was when we walked through a grove of trees and started walking along the street where I met a lot of old friends.  And what really intrigued me was the number of people who didn’t come.  I will not mention names.  But I sure was amazed by the absence of many people who I’d heard do a lot of talking prior to this moment.  They just weren’t there.  And a lot of people who never said a word were there.  You never can tell who the people are in any world—I don’t care what world it is—a football game, whether you are playing cards, or you need money—you sure can’t tell who it’s going to be who’s going to come across.  Let me tell you that.  Any old GI will tell you that story.  That there are a lot of awfully tough commandos in basic training, there are a lot of guys who can go up those fences like mad, and there are a lot of men who can shout commands.  It’s an interesting thing as to who comes across when the real stuff is flying in the air.  Don’t think for a minute you know who it would be.  You do not know.  You don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know who your enemies are.

One more thing has to be pointed out.  A man told me when we were walking, and he was a negro, by the way, and an old friend of mine.  He said, “You know, I wish my cousin who lives in Paris could see this, could be part of this.  He would never understand it though.”  He said, “This is a purely American thing.”  He said, “The headlines—you read a headline about another country—you don’t understand it, because you are not Vietnamese, you know.  You just don’t know!  You just don’t know what is happening in Belgium because you’re not Belgian.  It’s very difficult to know and it is very difficult for a European to understand this.  I’m sure it is.”

So we were walking along and thousands and thousands of white people and colored people are standing on the sidelines waving.  Guys in offices are cheering and waving.  Nobody reported on this!  And I want to go on record saying that during the entire day, I did not hear one word that I could construe as being the kind of word that you would hear in demonstrations, I did not hear one moment that I could call a moment that gave me even one instant a feeling of imminent rabble-rousing or any of that stuff.  There was just an amazing attitude towards everything.  You know, I hate to use such words as “love.”  These are ridiculous, meaningless words, but there was a feeling of humanity in the air, like we were all in something together.  I’m sure there must have been some guys in the offices who felt the opposite way, and suddenly realized how idiotic they were.

We walked along through this crowd and everybody was standing there waving and so on.  It wasn’t a parade—I’m sure it’s going to sound like a parade.  Nobody was yelling “WORKERS, UNITE!”  They were just sort of walking, the sun coming down, everyone cheering and waving.  Also, there was a vague feeling of embarrassment in the air.  Just a vague feeling like somebody has laid in a stock of all kinds of stuff he’s going to yell at his friend, he’s going to yell, he’s going to holler, and he gets there and it all goes out the window.

MarchOnWashington Lincoln Mem

“The first wave of marchers arrives at the Lincoln Memorial.”

We got to the park where the Lincoln Memorial is.  Incidentally, this trip once again affirms in my mind that one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been in is Washington.  It’s even prettier than it used to be when I went to school for a while there and used to spend weekends in Washington.  It’s changed a great deal.

March  on DC better color

We were coming in and millions of people were gathering, and I don’t know how they can estimate the number of people who were there.  There would be no way to estimate it.  I have no idea how they came across estimates because busses were coming in from all directions, everywhere, and it was just like a great big cloud—it was about as difficult to tell how big a cloud is or how many drops are in this cloud.  Just sort of a big thing, and as we walked through the push started to get rough.  And up there on the Lincoln Memorial the crowd was gathered and we pushed down into the crowd.  Each delegation, if you could call it that, had a little place where it was supposed to be.  Of course it wasn’t there—that went out the window with the cloud.

Everybody trying to get in, walking with their little signs, and suddenly through the crowd was this tiny band of people coming with a little sign that said “MISSISSIPPI.”  That was really a moment, I’ll tell you!  That was a moment. They came all the way up on some crummy old bus.  And everybody was hollering at them and talking and they were laughing and hollering.  Incidentally, in that Mississippi group there were more than just a few white people.  That should be pointed out.  People were slapping them on the back as they walked through.

march on D.C. signs

So they were there.  Standing around there.  In the middle of it all.  This was the greatest crowd I’ve ever been in in my life.  A much greater crowd than you’d ever see at a ballgame, which is supposed to be a fun thing. Much greater.  Much different thing.  You think you know about crowds, but you don’t know about them unless you’ve been in this one.

(More to come)

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