My mother grew up in a middle class African American family in Hyde Park, Chicago. She graduated from high school in 1963 and was enrolled in Skidmore College for the fall. As a girl, she was a dancer, so she convinced her parents to send her to dance school in Paris the summer before she started college. Paris in the early 60s was the mecca of cool, the epicenter for Black intellectuals and artists who had left the United States to find greater acceptance in the City of Lights. So, in the summer of ‘63, eighteen years old, my mom flew off alone to Paris, which was horribly romantic in theory but rather lonely in reality. This was particularly true if your French was less that exemplary, which was, unfortunately true for my mother.
My mother was alone and desperate for her mother tongue, so she read the International Herald Tribune every day cover to cover. One day, there was a notice on the back pages: “Interested in Civil Rights? Want to talk with other folks about the March on Washington? Come to Café Blah de blah blah at 4 p.m.” It was signed J.B. My mother circled the notice and went to Café Blah de blah at 4 o’clock. The café was overflowing with dozens of American ex pats, many African American, all sitting around drinking café lattes and discussing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that was planned for the following week. The small café was filled with a cacophony of American-accented voices speaking at once, asking, “What was it all about?” “What should we do?” “What does this all mean for Negros – is this really going to make a difference?” Finally the host of the meeting, J.B. – James Baldwin – stood up and said simply, “It’s time to go home. Our people need us.”
My mom went home. She changed her ticket and flew back to Chicago the day before the march. But when she got there, her parents’ house was empty. She went to her aunt’s place next door – empty. It was like the whole of Hyde Park was empty, all gone to Washington DC to take part in history. No one had been expecting her so there was no message, no instructions, nothing. Finally she found a scrap of paper written in her twin sister’s handwriting that had a name and number. She called it and a man on the other end said that the last chartered train to DC was leaving in two hours and she better get to the station if she wanted to get on board. So she did.
She arrived in DC with hundreds of thousands of people there to march to support civil rights. My mother was swept out of the train station into the crowd flowing like a human river towards the Lincoln Memorial. There, a queue of speakers took the stage to address the crowd, among them Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered a thoughtful speech about the emancipation proclamation and the national legacy of racism. Some say that it was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was standing nearby on the stage, who called out, “tell them about your dream, Martin!” And my mom stood in a crowd of over 200,000 listening to the speech that would later be recognized as a transforming moment of the Civil Rights Movement. That day, my mom never found her mother or father or her twin sister or aunts, uncles, cousins, grandfather, and neighbors, but she knew that they were there with her somewhere in the crowd. And she knew that her world had changed forever.
My mother started college several weeks later. She joined SNCC – the Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee. She joined SDS – Students for a Democratic Society. She joined the MOVEMENT…and never looked back. A couple years later, in 1965, while organizing for another march on Washington to oppose the Vietnam War, my mom got a call from a graduate student at Rochester, saying that he had three busloads of people for the march but needed to connect to an organization to get them to DC. My mother told the grad student to come to a planning meeting in New York City, and he did. That man was my father. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I share this story as a call to us all, J.B.’s call that my mother answered, “to go home, our people need us.” And home is not only our home, but the streets and jails and prisons and homeless shelters and veterans homes and community centers and clinics and legal aids and public defender offices and all places we are needed to advocate for justice. And our people are all people whose voices are silenced and stories vilified and humanity stolen – all people for whom the law has been wielded as a weapon against them rather than a tool for their equality. And on this journey for justice, we will sometimes feel alone and scared and far from comfort, but our spirits will be buoyed by the many others who have also answered the call, and comforted by knowledge that we are part of global movement – people raising hands up and voices loud and putting lives at risk for justice. And we will need to be lifted by words and wisdom of those who preach proudly to the choir because they know the power of their sermons is what inspires the choir to sing our loud and proud and powerfully for justice – justice that looks like love in public. And we must answer this call and never look back because today, more than ever, our people need us.
Tirien Angela Steinbach is the executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center, the community-based clinic for Berkeley Law School, where she graduated from law school in 1999. This post was written from her life experiences in hopes of inspiring a call to justice. It originally appeared on the EBCLC blog under the title “J.B.’s Call and the March for Jobs and Freedom.”