Leslie Cunningham :
Fifty years ago and counting

For a white kid graduating from high school in 1963 and already involved in civil rights, seeing Dr. King at the Washington Monument highlighted a momentous year.

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Members of civil rights group HSBE (High School Students for Better Education) register as federal lobbyists. Leslie Lincoln (now Cunningham) is second from left. According to Les, “most of the black students were left out of the picture.” Photo from the Washington Post.

By Leslie Cunningham | The Rag Blog | April 3, 2014

“We missed you at the 50th reunion.”

It was a phone call out of the blue, from a totally unfamiliar area code and number. A raucous voice started singing a song in Arabic that I had learned in 1957. “Who is this?” I yelled. “Who could know that song?”

A laugh. “It’s Janet. Janet Frank.” I hadn’t talked to her in 50 years. We caught up a little. A terrific musician in high school, she still plays cello in the National Symphony Orchestra. Wow! All I could offer was a history of government jobs from which I am now retired.

I had thought about going to the reunion of the Woodrow Wilson High School Class of 1963. I looked it up, but there wasn’t anyone on the planning committee I remembered. It was being held at a country club in Chevy Chase, Maryland. What was up with that? I located one of my favorite classmates, but she wasn’t going. I searched for some others. When I googled Buddy Timberg, I got his obituary.

Maybe I should have gone. But in the middle of 1963 my high school graduation seemed rather insignificant.

All of 1963 was a momentous year, filled with promise and horror and portents of things to come.

All of 1963 was a momentous year, filled with promise and horror and portents of things to come. Mostly it was the civil rights movement: Bull Connor’s fire hoses and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; the assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi; the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the murder of four little black girls in a church bombing fueled by racism and hate. Then, closing out the year, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

My friends and I were like other white kids who had been startled and inspired by the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 and the Freedom Rides in 1961. We marched on picket lines in front of a car dealership that refused to hire black salespeople. We “tested” restaurants in Virginia — going in first with a multi-racial group, then with an all-white group, to see who would get service. I don’t remember who organized this effort or how I found out about it. I think we reported our results to the NAACP.

And I don’t know who organized the group I joined called “High School Students for Better Education.” Or who got the Washington Post to give us a room to meet in. Or who got us permission to visit various high schools. But I got really active. Public schools in Washington, D.C., were de jure integrated by then, but still de facto segregated. Many high schools were all black; one (mine) was virtually all white.

We toured high schools, looking at the conditions of the buildings, the ventilation systems, the food in the cafeterias, the furniture, the textbooks. I remember staring at a heating outlet with the date “1888” on the metal fixture. Big surprise — the all-white and racially mixed schools were in better shape than the all-black schools. We looked up statistics and found that the per-pupil expenditure was lowest for the all-black schools.

We had to register as lobbyists with the federal government in order to present our case to Congress. “Home Rule” had not come to D.C. — there was no democratically elected local government. This was a civil rights issue in and of itself. The Constitution gives Congress total jurisdiction over the District, and when I was in high school the District of Columbia Committees of the Senate and the House served as city council and school board. We believed that Congress was not allowing D.C. to govern itself because the population of D.C. was majority African-American.

So a number of us spoke earnestly at committee hearings, met by inattention, impatience, and boredom from old white men. It seemed to us as if they were mostly segregationist southern Democrats. We got a few figurative pats on the heads and thanks for being so civic minded — and were sent on our way. The only concrete outcome I remember was Senator Hubert Humphrey waving a tattered textbook on the floor of the U.S. Senate, leading to a small increase in appropriations so that the black schools could get some new books and not rely on hand-me-downs from schools like mine.

After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High in June 1963, I heard the exciting news that all these people were coming to D.C. for a civil rights rally, and Martin Luther King was going to be there, and some of my favorite folk singers. There was no way I was going to miss it. My mother tried to dissuade me, citing the heat and my recent wisdom tooth surgery (she didn’t say she was afraid of riots, and nothing like that had even occurred to me). But my parents had approved of what I had been doing, and I was with a group of friends, so they did not forbid me from going.

On August 28 it was an easy outing — we just took the D-3 bus to Federal Triangle, walked a few steps, and there we were, emerging into an amazing sea of people on the Washington Mall. It was the first time I had ever been to a large march or rally for any kind of “cause.”

I have read that white folks made up only 20% of the people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But as my friends and I joined the huge mass of humanity on the Mall, I don’t remember having any consciousness of being in a small minority. I don’t remember any of the pre-march media propaganda about riots in the streets. As relatively privileged young white people, we expected (if we gave it any thought) to be welcomed, and that is the way it turned out.

With photos of the march so ubiquitous, you’ve maybe laughed at all the white dress shirts, the suits and ties, the skirts and dresses.

2013 was the 50th anniversary — and with photos of the march so ubiquitous, you’ve maybe laughed at all the white dress shirts, the suits and ties, the skirts and dresses. Did the organizers enforce that — wanting the march to look respectable? Maybe — but at that time this was the way most people dressed for an occasion, and girls still couldn’t wear pants to school. My recollection is that I myself wore a dress that day.

I was, of course, unaware of any of the internal politics of the March. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality had wanted direct action with civil disobedience at the Justice Department. That plan was shot down by the more conservative, older march organizers. Martin Luther King was disappointed that civil disobedience was taken out of the plans.

I did not know that John Lewis of SNCC had the more radical parts of his speech censored. He was going to criticize the Kennedy administration — but not much of that was to be allowed. I did not know that Bayard Rustin was suppressed from public presence because he was homosexual AND socialist. I did not know how frustrated many of the marchers and organizers were by how much white liberal influence there was on the march (why was it Joan Baez who led the crowd in singing “We Shall Overcome”?). I was just there, in my youthful, well-meaning naïveté, thoroughly in awe of the whole event.

They had a great sound system! There I was, way back next to the Washington Monument, and the podium was at the Lincoln Memorial. I couldn’t hear everything perfectly, but, with the technology of 50 years ago, I could hear better than at most big events I’ve been to more recently. Though the truth is I don’t remember much about the speeches or even the music.

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“Strong women, tough demands,” remembers Leslie. 1963 photo from The New York Times.

Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson — their marvelous voices flowed out over the whole length of the Mall. I vaguely remember Peter, Paul, and Mary. I don’t remember Bob Dylan at all. I now know that the first speaker was A. Philip Randolph, but I’d never heard of him at that time. My high school U.S. history class hadn’t told me that he was an African-American labor union leader who had threatened a March on Washington in 1941 to end discriminatory hiring in the growing war industries.

So I didn’t pay much attention. Mostly I just marveled at the crowd (it seemed much larger to me than 250,000, which is the number I’ve heard ever since). I looked with curiosity at the individuals close to me, and read the signs — “Jobs and Freedom NOW!” is the main one I remembered. Looking at the old photos today, I am reminded of how many of the slogans were economic demands — higher minimum wages, full employment, an end to bias on the job.

His voice boomed out over the mass of people, his rhetoric had us riveted.

Then there was Martin Luther King, Jr. When he began to speak, it seemed to me that the whole crowd got quiet. His voice boomed out over the mass of people, his rhetoric had us riveted. I had the feeling, this speech is going to be remembered and repeated; I’m listening to something historic. The visions that remain with me from his speech? Little black children and little white children together in a circle, holding hands; justice, a growing whirlwind, rolling inexorably down a mountain just as it rolled down the whole length of the Mall.

I know, today we roll our eyes at the portrayal of Dr. King as just the man with the dream. U.S. mainstream culture wants to stop the African-American struggle at that point in history; wants us to call the event the “Great Civil Rights March on Washington,” not by its real name, the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”; wants us to think that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 meant final victory against racial discrimination in the U.S.

But in 1963 I was 18 and that’s the point in my life I was at and that’s the point in history we were at. Dr. King’s emotion and passion and power, his invocation of U.S. history and the “promissory note” that the U.S. had reneged on with its citizens of color, his personal conversation with the African-Americans in his audience acknowledging their sacrifices, their suffering, their survival of police violence and imprisonment; all this made an impression that stays with me more vividly than much that has happened to me in the half century since then.

I think the main thing I took from it at the time was seeing all those people, all those BLACK people, all those men and especially women, young and old, whose event this was. Seeing their seriousness and power and determination. They were the instigators, they were the organizers, they were the leaders of their own struggle.

Still feeling the glow and promise of this great event, I went off to college, thinking, ‘I’ll do something productive in life.’

Still feeling the glow and promise of this great event, I went off to college, thinking, “I’ll do something productive in life; I’ll be a journalist, or an economist, or…” But college seemed almost an anachronism. It was all girls, and almost all white. We STILL couldn’t wear pants to class, or even to dinner in the dorm.

The “real” world kept happening. On September 15 came the death of the four children in Birmingham in the 16th St Baptist Church bombing. I don’t remember being as emotionally affected as one would think I would have been. Because I was white, it was so far removed from my world — even though I had the civil rights movement experience — and I was having a whole lot of fun in college. But the Kennedy assassination seemed to put everything over the top. The U.S. had truly changed.

Yes, I remember where I was when President Kennedy was shot. We filled the living room of our college dorm, glued to the TV, not believing what we were seeing, hoping, hoping that he would make it and then being devastated when the TV announced, “The President is dead.”

This was in Massachusetts, and the school canceled classes. For three days all the radio stations played was dirge music. We were mostly white and mostly fairly affluent and too young to remember the terror of World War II except through what our parents told us. Assassinations did not happen in the U.S. any more. Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were of a different planet, too long ago to even imagine.

Was this the “defining moment” of 1963? The final shock, yes. But I hate overwrought phrases, just as I would hesitate to call any of the events of 1963 “life-changing” experiences for me. Though when you’re 18, still pretty ignorant but developing and maturing fast, a lot of what happens has a big impact, and 1963 was certainly an impactful year.

Now it’s 2014 and the 50th anniversaries just keep on coming. Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement of the War on Poverty. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Soon, a “Civil Rights Summit” hosted by the LBJ Library at the University of Texas, honoring (a little ahead of time) President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964. Each time, I find myself drawn into the past; but I also think, what should I be doing in the present?

The roads we follow are many and twisted and unique. Accidents of time and geography affect what highlights of history we experience; class and race and culture and upbringing influence how we experience these events. Sometimes the effects are obvious, but sometimes quite perverse. How can we know why?

I, like many others both well-known and obscure, have found myself revisiting my life and trying to figure out how I got to be who I am. Like some, I’ve felt compelled to write about it — for myself, and maybe my kids. If it’s of interest to anyone else, if it helps anyone else figure out what should be their own path forward, then I’ll feel my effort was doubly worthwhile

[Austin resident Leslie Cunningham is a grandmother, a socialist, and a member of the Retiree Organizing Committee of the Texas State Employees Union.]

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6 Responses to Leslie Cunningham :
Fifty years ago and counting

  1. Alice says:

    Leslie, Thank you for sharing these memories of 1963. And thank you for your decades of commitment to social and economic justice since 1963. The civil rights movement changed the trajectory of our lives. Alice

  2. Linda W. says:

    Great work, Leslie. I’m always intrigued that your life and mine had so many parallels, but only one significant intersection. In 1963, I was in Mexico, learning to be an adult. My involvement in Civil Rights would come a few years later, when I returned from Peace Corps and learned that the USA was not as I imagined it. There was much that needed fixing!!!! And there still is!!

  3. Fran Clark says:

    Leslie, what a wonderful essay! I so enjoyed reading about your experience and impressions of that time.

  4. Beverly Moore says:

    Very nice piece. Leslie is nor the only aging activist looking for connection between our pasts and our present.

  5. Leslie Cunningham says:

    What do folks think of the “Civil Rights Summit” starting this week at the LBJ Library?

    Regarding the 50th anniversaries that keep on coming, my friend Dennis O’Neil in New York notes that “The big one this year will be Mississippi Summer.” I confess I didn’t participate in Mississippi Freedom Summer because I just didn’t have the courage.

    And then there’s the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August. . .

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