Hatchet staff writer Rachel Smilan-Goldstein recounts her experience at the Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action ceremony Wednesday, which celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom.
On a day meant to commemorate a historic moment in the ongoing struggle for equality, one barrier remained unwavering between spectators and the reflecting pool: a white security tent.
Thousands gathered Wednesday at the 17th Street entrance of the National Mall, squeezed between the Washington Monument and World War II Memorial, only to wait for hours before passing through an unsubstantial security checkpoint.
The mass of bodies could not be described as a line, instead resembling a mob as the rain poured down on the muggy late-August morning. The heat was sweltering, and we stood for hours.
Within the crowd, people shouted for medics. An elderly man was helped out of the masses; a young woman knelt above the ground before fainting, vomiting and losing consciousness. At least five other people left for medical attention.
And with no access to water or bathrooms, many people abandoned their spots in the crowd for basic necessities.
Despite the dangers and inconveniences of the security process, many attendees remained in high spirits. As they inched closer to the security tent, they joked loudly about reaching the “Promised Land” on the other side and “crossing the Mason-Dixon line.”
Along the way, guards held true to their promise to confiscate a number of items. One man in the crowd lamented giving up his two metal water bottles and a Swiss army knife. A woman was devastated as guards took her over-sized sign denouncing the death of Trayvon Martin. As she complained, guards told her that she could keep the sign but would have to sacrifice her hours of waiting. With thousands waiting for her to make a decision, she tore off part of the poster and proceeded onto the Mall.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s representative in Congress, called the security check point an “organizational breakdown.” She wrote in a letter to the Secret Service that D.C. Fire and EMS had to attend to more then 100 people, and some were hospitalized.
“As a result of your poor planning and execution, many were unable to attend and participate in the event altogether,” Norton wrote in the letter she sent Thursday to Secret Service Director Julia Pierson. “There is no doubt that the many failures could have been prevented.”
In 1963, there were no metal detectors, no bag searches, no pat downs. Instead, those rallying for civil rights across the country faced threats of police dogs and fire hoses, or worse.
The security feats average citizens had to overcome Wednesday illuminate the changed world in the wake of the events of the 1960s and more recent years. The cumulative impacts of tragedies ranging from the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to 9/11 to the Boston bombing haven’t changed the “why,” but “how” we march on Washington.