Taking a Train Ride to History

By Jodie Levin-Epstein

Most of our family trips were taken to reconnect with out-of-town relatives. In 1963, when I was 12 years old, we took a trip to Washington, D.C. with a different purpose. We left very early from New York City’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station on August 28, my brother’s 16th birthday. He was already wise enough to know his celebration would be buried beneath the bigger one in which over a quarter of a million people converged on the mall for the March on Washington.

Neither my brother nor I knew what to expect that day but we knew it was a given that our family would take part in the call to demonstrate for Jobs and Freedom. It was important to show solidarity and join, as a white family, with the other marchers of whom 75-80 percent were black.

While some worried that the March might turn violent, the train ride was a pre-teen’s dream. We were free to roam from car to car and join together with the guitar and banjo strumming teenagers and twenty-somethings (a label not yet coined) to sing oft-repeated folk songs. We Shall Overcome rocked on those rails.

Dad, a former labor organizer who knew how scenes could turn violent, conveyed his firm belief that the March would be peaceful (as an organizer, dad’s life had been threatened and mom responded with her own threat that he had to get a new job). This was a chance to demonstrate side by side with people who everyday experienced discrimination everywhere – in housing, jobs, education, health. After all, the experience of discrimination was a persistent memory within our own, Jewish, community. Dad predicted not only that the March on Washington would be peaceful but also that it would become an historic and productive moment.

When we got to Washington, D.C. thousands of people were already at Union Station and the walk to the mall was a jam of people and posters. It was pretty eye-popping to be part of such a huge mass of people who seemed to be just incredibly happy as though each person had invited the other to come along. Today, large-scale Washington, D.C. demonstrations are more common so it’s hard to imagine the impact that seeing this many people gathering together had on everyone involved.

We worked our way towards the Lincoln Memorial for the speakers and entertainers. I mostly remember the kinds of things a 12-year-old might recall. We sat for hours (and hours), listened, talked and sang. Lots of the marchers held transistor radios so they could better hear the voices at the Memorial podium. We didn’t take pictures; unlike our sandwiches and snacks, a camera was not something to schlep all the way on the train from New York. When I decided I wanted to look around my instructions were simply not to wander too far and just remember our group’s flag so I could make my way back; the only concern was that I might get lost and not that I might get harmed in that crowd of a quarter million people.

I don’t remember many of the speeches. I do recall that there was sort of a collective hush when Martin Luther King got up to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. King described it as “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”

The economy in which the dream was rooted has changed dramatically: the decline of manufacturing was not on the horizon; most moms were not in the workforce; and, low-paying jobs then could more often serve as stepping stones to higher-paying positions. Today, the notion that if you work hard you can get ahead and your children will be better off (the core of the American Dream) is not as possible to achieve as it once was. These economic forces affect most families; yet these hurdles today also carry special racial implications, among them:

Wage inequality. While there has long been a gap in black-white wages and it has been narrowing, it remains significant. In 2010, black men earned just 74.5 percent and black women earned only 69.6 percent of the typical white man’s wages. Certainly something is amiss when black male college graduates earn, on average, about the same annual salaryas white male high school graduates. What we know today is that while many factors contribute to the black-white wage gap, at least one study found that racial discrimination accounts for one-third of the difference.

Wealth inequality. The wealth gap between whites and blacks is large and growing. Over 25 years the gap between white and African-American families has increased from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009. A primary explanation: the length of time the family has been a home owner. So, no surprise that a new federal report concludes that even today “Blatant acts of housing discrimination faced by minority home seekers continue to decline in the U.S., yet more subtle forms of housing denial stubbornly persist… Real estate agents and rental housing providers recommend and show fewer available homes and apartments to minority families, thereby increasing their costs and restricting their housing options.”

Job quality. With new jobs increasingly emerging in low-wage sectors, there is reason to expect such jobs will fail everyday workers because of their low wages: among blacks and whites who make up the less-skilled labor market, blacks earn significantly less and fully 12 percent of that difference remains even after controlling for worker, job, and employer characteristics. But poor quality jobs also include inadequate hours, little advance schedule notice, and too little or no time to address health issues. New analysis shows that among workers, people of color are less likely than whites to have access to any kind of paid leave or workplace flexibility.

While the magnitude of these challenges is daunting, at 62, I find myself heartened. I feel the seeds of another historic time. What I find potentially transformative are burgeoning movements, including such efforts as the “We Dream a World” call to action for America to begin strategically addressing the problems that hinder Black men and boys (CLASP serves on the Steering Committee of the coalition promoting this initiative); the serious promotion of a full-employment economy; and, the mobilizing of low-wage workers to stand up for better jobs as exemplified by the service workers strike on August 29th.

I have no memory of the train ride home. Professionally, looking back after decades of work on social justice issues, the March has always stood as a reminder of the value of collective action and celebration. There’s something else too. It turns out that it was a family trip after all, but not in a way anyone could have predicted. On that same train was a boy I would later meet when I was 16; a man who became my husband. We had taken that train ride to history together.