Before Barack, there was Martin. And before Martin, there was Frederick, and Sojourner and Harriet and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Even more unsung, were the countless, nameless foot soldiers in the bloodstained battle singing “O, Freedom,” which brings us to this unimaginable day.
“Before I be a slave, I be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free,” they faithfully sang. And it was that persistent resistance, mostly nonviolent, which miraculously transformed “yes, we can” to “yes, we did.”
Greatness does not begin or end with one man or woman, but with many.
Those fighting spirits were conjured Monday during a historic re-enactment on the bustling U Street corridor. Celebrants of Martin Luther King‘s birthday also marched, rallied and laid a wreath to honor the freedom fighters at the African American Civil War Memorial, on the eve of the inauguration of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.
Written at the base of the memorial are the words “Civil War To Civil Rights and Beyond.” Inside the adjacent museum a new traveling exhibit, called “The Glorious March to Freedom,” was unveiled.
“All these things are links in the chain that symbolize how we stepped on the shoulders of everybody before us,” said Charles Neblett, 68, manager of the original Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers.
Mr. Neblett, who led a crowd of about 200 people in several civil rights classics, said Mr. Obama’s election was possible because of “our resistance to being dehumanized.” That theme started “from the first lady who jumped off the slave ship and took her child with her because she said slavery was not for her” to Mr. Obama, who had the audacity to make a king-sized dream a reality.
Accompanying Mr. Neblett was Bob Zellner, of Southampton, N.Y., the author of “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek,” his memoir of being a white Alabama native who was expelled from Huntington College after being arrested with SNCC members.
“One lesson from the Civil War to the freedom fighters … to the Obama movement, is that nonviolent politics works. And we have an army now to make change in this country and in the world,” said Mr. Zellner, a retired history professor.
He rightfully added that black warriors were aided at every step of the journey by many whites, adding that Mr. Obama is “another transformative figure,” who “brings the message that white people can do something about racism.” Mr. Obama “will bring people together because we know we have much more important problems than the color of someone’s skin,” Mr. Zellner said.
Frank Smith, the former D.C. Council member who marched with King, joked about his former SNCC compatriots as he looked at the faces of the younger folks gathered in the crowd.
“We were in the Mississippi jails together, but these guys are old and gray now.”
Mr. Smith, who turned his dream of the Civil War memorial to honor black soldiers into bronze and stone, called out yours truly to come forward with other descendants to place the wreath of red, white and blue carnations at the foot of the statue.
The name of my great-great grandfather, James Montgomery Peters - whose initialed Civil War musket is part of the Manassas Museum exhibits - is among the thousands of names etched in the memorial wall.
For a while, I could have sworn that I saw ghosts walking among the throngs of visitors in Obama gear mulling around that memorial on King’s birthday. I was surrounded by so many bluecoats and muskets that I did a double-take because one of them actually looked like my great-great-grandfather’s tinted portrait come alive.
Amid the 54th Regiment re-enactors were Michael Coblyn, 52, and his sons, Christopher and Andrew, of Amherst, Mass., who also marched in the inaugural parade. Their participation was a source of particular pride because the original regiment - which included Mr. Coblyn’s great-grandfather, Eli Biddle - was among the black troops not allowed to march in the 1864 victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.
“We’re marching to honor Eli and my father, and I see it as a connection coming full circle,” said the elder Mr. Coblyn, an art history professor at the University of Massachusetts.
“The civil rights movement started back in the 1800s,” when the 54th Regiment was among the black troops who refused their pay for 18 months until the government compensated them at the same rate as white soldiers.
Dressed as Sojourner Truth, Tonya Grimes, a board member of the 54th Regiment’s Company A, said she was actually representing the Christian Colored Ladies, who baked, ironed and cleaned to earn money for the soldiers involved in the pay-equity protest.
One solemn man bore such a striking resemblance to abolitionist Frederick Douglass - his tall, regal frame, his wiry white/gray beard and billowing locks and his signature black overcoat with flaps - that I thought the Civil War adviser to Abraham Lincoln had risen from the grave.
Just as this erudite gentleman began to expound on the contributions of Harriet Tubman, conductor of the Underground Railroad, her spitting image whisked by me so fast, I just knew that woman was a spirit, too.
Summoning the spirit of Douglass, Michael E. Crutcher Sr., of Lexington, Ky., said, “This is just the grand climax of the struggles people made so this could happen,” as he called the names of former freedom fighters.
As for King, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a close King ally who gave the benediction at Tuesday’s inaugural, pointed out in a TV interview that King was “a nonviolent militant, a Christian activist.” Indeed Mr. Obama, of the so-called post racial era, once called these iconic civil rights warriors the “Moses generation.” And he wasn’t talking about SNCC leader Bob Moses.
Each generation provides another link in the unbroken chain of our evolution toward equality for all humankind. Each generation begets another transformative figure who shows us the vision and the way to our better selves. As these historic figures passed the torch from one generation to the next, we realize that they did not - nor could not - accomplish their mission for their moment alone.
Proud Americans have much to celebrate as we reach this historic milestone, the inauguration of a black man, the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, as the 44th president of the United States.
But today, as yesterday, Martin, Harriet, Sojourner, Frederick and the countless, nameless, unsung foot soldiers before them would warn us, we cannot rest on mythical yet accomplished apparitions.