My name is Steven Elkinton, and I am 65 years old. As manager of the National Trails Program for the National Park Service, I have had the good fortune to participate in multi-cultural projects bring the diverse stories of Americans into the recreation system from Network to Freedom Underground Railroad to the Trail of Tears. Perhaps that path started for me a half-century ago, as a white 15-year old, when I had the opportunity to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia in a Quaker family. Quakers in those days were working hard in what was then called “race relations” — fair housing, fair employment, voting rights, open transportation, and integrated schools. In Media, PA, an interracial community center, called Fellowship House, had been set up for after-school and weekend programs. I often participated in these programs and did my best, as a school kid, to try to reach across racial barriers. It was hard, for I remember in school that somehow all the African -American kids ended up in “special education.” We lived with prejudice, but we knew it was unfair.
That year my older brother, who was a keenly political and progressive, told me about this march and that Media Fellowship House was organizing buses for a day trip down to DC. He knew it would be an historical event that might even influence President Kennedy. Why not see Washington, experience the March, and maybe move national policy a little closer towards fairness? I was happy to go, especially with him at my side.
I don’t remember all the details of the trip, but I remember as we approached Washington the only traffic was a steady stream of buses bringing thousands of people to the March. Every window in every house was open and people were leaning out waving kerchiefs and bandanas and fans, welcoming us to the city – we felt like heroes being welcomed. Even before we reached the Mall, we were made to feel as welcomed guests, rather than protesters.
For us it wasn’t a March, but really a rally. We stood in the sun for 5-6 hours, just off the northwest corner of the Reflecting Pool and were as awe-struck as everyone about this skillfully planned peaceful assembly — supposedly the largest ever to have occurred up to that time in the Capital of the Free World. (Only later did I come to appreciate some of the political and historic background of the event, and that Bayard Rustin, also raised a Quaker, and chief event organizer, came from our neighboring county Pennsylvania of Chester County.)
Despite a lot of waiting around with nowhere to sit and high heat, spirits were high and the speeches and entertainment often deeply moving for an idealistic 15 year-old. I recognized the entertainers more than the speakers (my mother was an opera fan, so Marian Anderson’s voice was well known to me). I had also heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at a Quaker conference in 1957, so I knew his speech would be eloquent, deeply spiritual, and uplifting. And so it was. Thousands of people had come to be lifted up — and we were.
At the end of the day, I certainly felt empowered, and sensed that there was hope that this great nation could overcome deep-seated racial and social prejudices that had bedeviled it from its origins. We had done our best to be a good audience — and the speakers’ platform had delivered, with words and music of hope and promise ringing in our ears. Even as we boarded the bus one sign caught my eye — “Don’t Forget the Indians.” Yes, I thought, this struggle for civil rights and equality is not just black-white. It is for human justice for all groups in this country.
Flash forward to 1978, 15 years after March, and I came back to Washington as a newly hired National Park Service landscape architect. I would wander around the Lincoln Memorial and wonder what had happened, had the March been worthwhile? Have we as a nation pulled together for jobs and freedom? Were we, too, mortally wounded by the assassinations of both Kennedy and King? Are we really making progress, or just negotiating around the edges? Can racism and prejudice every really be eliminated?
It has been great blessing to me as an NPS employee (approaching retirement now after 35 years) to participate in multi-cultural projects, including the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic Trails. I even guided a tour of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail focused on indigenous Hawaiian culture of the Big Island.
In my NPS career, it has been my privilege to help America remember and celebrate its multi-cultural heritage. Given my Quaker upbringing, I probably would have this without coming to Washington in 1963. But that March — making history on behalf of all the people just by being present — moved me forward to be as strongly supportive as I could for equal rights, equal justice, and economic empowerment of all people, not just the privileged.