Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Together as Salt and Pepper, Just as You Should Be


"Two loves have I," she sang, "My country and Paree..."  One day brought those loves together like none other.

Today, the great event that took place 50 years ago today, is rightly remembered as having helped create the legend and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., but it's important to remember, I think, that the March on Washington was a great day for many, many people - and that not least among them was the sole official female speaker on that historic podium - Miss Josephine Baker.

Resplendent in her uniform of the Free French and laden with her Croix de Guerre and the other medals she received as a heroine of the Resistance, Josephine was paradoxically never more American than on August 28, 1963.  Looking in surviving photographs a little dazed, perhaps not only at the crowds but at the unaccustomed time of day (I've never gotten the impression that Josephine was a morning person), she was presented as the face of "the international character of the struggle of which we are currently engaged."  She gave a speech that, while it has been overshadowed by the mighty cadences of "I Have a Dream," stands on its own as a piece of oratory, one that is, in its own eccentric way, almost as distinctive and surely as heartfelt as Dr. King's.

Looking out at the tens of thousands gathered on that lovely summer day, from backgrounds as varied as the Rainbow Tribe of adopted children over which she presided, she said, "This is the happiest day of my entire life.  And as you all must know, I have had a very long life and I’m 60 years old. The results today of seeing you all together is a sight for sore eyes. You’re together as salt and pepper just as you should be."

She talked about the peculiar twists and turns of her own life, of how she "walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents," but "could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee. That made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world!"

That day, they did.

I'm proud to have my own little connection to that great day.  Not, alas, through La Bakaire, but at least through someone who was there and who, I suspect given his organizational role, may have had something to do with her being there.

Many years, back when I was a tot on one of our Great Eastern Campuses, I was deputed to play student host for a visitor for one or another of the institution's periodic diversity celebrations.  In those pre-Google days it was significantly harder to swot up on someone in advance than it is today, so I had to do considerable research in preparation for spending a couple of days in the company of Bayard Rustin.  While I learned much about his life and work, only the time spent with him taught me about his greatness: his warmth, his wry serenity, and the vast and sweeping patience it takes to see and comprehend the long arc of history bending, as his comrade Dr. King said, toward justice.  Bayard Rustin, like (in her very different way Josephine) had all that and more: he helped direct the Moral Universe's slow but (we can only hope) ineluctable progress in that direction.

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