The August I turned six, my parents walked in the March on Washington. I didn’t understand why it was so important that my parents go to Washington to be part of the March, but I sensed the heightened anxiety around it. Theirs and mine. They were concerned enough about their safety that new wills were drawn up so that if anything happened to them, we would be raised by my Aunt Alice. That was a scary prospect. While they were gone, my brother and I stayed with her. She was cool and aloof, not particularly mother-y even though she had several children of her own.

I now know that my parents felt moved to stand in solidarity with all those other brave people who were outraged by the treatment of blacks in our country. I am sure they tried to explain this to me at the time, but even if they did, it didn’t compare to my discomfort at being left behind with Aunt Alice.

We were in Vermont at the time and there was no television at my cousins’ house. There was no awareness of the monumental event happening 500 miles away. No opportunity to hear the sonorous tones of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech or see the black and white images of the record crowd around the Mall. I remember quietly crying myself to sleep, feeling abandoned by my parents and wondering how I would raise my younger brother if they didn’t come back.

My parents returned from their experience in Washington emboldened to integrate the large Episcopal church in Englewood, New Jersey where my dad was rector. In protest, many white people left and went up the hill to the Presbyterian church. I was just beginning to tune into the sweeping social changes that were happening around me. Nothing prepared me, however, for the education I received nearly five years later, the night of April 4, 1968. I found my mother sobbing in front of the TV. The night he was shot and killed, I learned who Martin Luther King, Jr. was. For the first time, I saw clips of his speech from the March on Washington and realized what an incredible man he had been. Suddenly I was proud that my parents had been there many years ago. My children now have grown up looking at footage of the March on Washington and trying to identify their grandparents in the vast crowd - two little white spots on the south side of the Reflecting Pool about three quarters of the way back from the Lincoln Memorial.

I read yesterday that President Obama was speaking in Phoenix and hundreds of protesters outside carried signs and shouted racially charged things like “Obama is 47% Negro” and “Bye Bye, Black Sheep.” This August is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I plan to spend some time on the south side of the Reflecting Pool and do some reflecting about how far we’ve come and how woefully far we still have to go.