'This country doesn't love us back'
Smoke all the way across Nevada and Utah from the California fires. Endless plains of Wyoming, corn fields of Nebraska. All a blur. Missouri. Hey, there’s even an Oregon, Missouri. Didn’t know that. Then Tennessee. Up through the Carolinas, Virginia, all of it.
We rolled across the U.S. in 42 hours stopping only for gas. Afraid of COVID. But we were headed for the Commitment March on Washington, and I just wanted to get there and it was OK if I didn’t see anything except some corn and an Oregon, Missouri sign. The land is big. Who was out there as we sped through? I wasn’t sure.
They needed to know we were coming through. They needed to know it was the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s first March on Washington in 1963. Did anyone remember those times? And what about these times now, and what about that change that was supposed to have come?
I had to get a press pass and arrived in DC with no time to spare. Filled out applications online at my son’s house. My phone went dead. ATT towers down, changing to G-5. Trooped over to the Martin Luther King Library the night before the march to pick up a pass. Got the pass.
But the photography pool was full, they said. I’d have to take my chances. With three hours of sleep that night, I showed up at the Lincoln Memorial at 4 o’clock the next morning. The first one there. They let me into the photo pool! And there I soon had the company of a bunch of cool photographers and filmmakers from all over the country who started trickling into our fenced-off area right near the front of the Lincoln Memorial. They became my buddies as we waited for the 11:00 event to start.
Sandy, a black filmmaker from DC, showed me her 10 years’ worth of press passes, badges of honor from attending as many marches over the years. Wore them around her neck. A mom and her daughter from Florida had driven up. Attended and documented marches across the country. All on their own. They said it was “to protest racial injustice,” as if that was the most natural thing in the world to do.
All this with temperature checks, everyone in masks, even gloves. Sunglasses. Social distancing. At the Capitol to report on the biggest event DC had seen in a long time ... black and white and Hispanic and Asian and Indian and Muslim and LGBQT and old and young all there and following the rules while the Republican National Convention defied them all.
It was hot as hell, and the tone was somber. The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha was on everyone’s mind. Another new tragedy. Hard to keep up, what with George Floyd’s family and Breonna Taylor’s and all the rest up there on the stage.
I handed a bottle of water to a woman wearing a leg brace and sitting in a chair who was just over the fence and worried about her dog, which wore a Black Lives Matter jacket. An old man on a crutch came over and asked to borrow my battery charger for his iPhone. A kid, maybe about 15, carried a sign saying his granddaddy had been at the march way back then, and he was going to one now for him. A woman in the photo pool passed out. It was boiling hot. We watched each others’ stuff as we forayed to get water for each other.
We stood in the sun all day.
But I had to get closer to the stage. I had to. Al Sharpton was coming on. He was somewhere at the top of the Memorial by the Lincoln statue. I jumped over the photography pool gate and worked my way past the woman with the brace and the old gent and the kid with the sign. Moved on up to the Memorial’s stairs. I knew I didn’t have the proper pass. That was for the big CNN folks. But I snuck up anyway.
And there was Al Sharpton, the march organizer, surrounded by bodyguards and officials. He was a small, thin man in his National Action Network mask and gloves. He had a beautiful suit on. Dignified. Elegant.
And he was praying.
He stood there for an hour waiting to come down the stairs to speak. Praying. And everyone around him was serious, and some were praying too. They were somber. Grieving in their black suits and blue masks. The Lincoln statue behind them. But I couldn’t get Lincoln in the shot. They’d turned the lights off and Lincoln was a shadow.
He was gone.
Al kept praying. Patiently waiting. The mood was sad. All those folks around him in their masks, trying to be good Americans. I thought of the words I’d heard earlier from the podium. They haunted me: ‘We keep loving this country. But this country doesn’t love us back.”
Everyone was exhausted. Including Al Sharpton. Not because of the day. Because of history. I’d say they were beyond anger. They were in mourning. The choir down below sang Sam Cook’s iconic song:
“Oh, when I’d go to my brother,
I’d say, brother, help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees ...
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there above the sky ...”
And then Sharpton walked down the stairs to the podium. God only knows how many times he’d done this same thing and how many thousands of speeches he had made and marches and protests he’d attended and sermons and funeral orations he’d given.
What did he tell us at the podium?
We must stand in the sun all day.
At the polls.
However long it takes.
Then there were the spirituals sung by a choir group below the stage: “Change is gonna come. ... I’m so tired of livin’, I’m afraid to die.” And, from the podium, words that haunted me: “We keep loving this country, but this country doesn’t love us back.”
Ashland resident Susan Caperna Lloyd has been photographing cultural events around the world for 30 years. Her archive was recently purchased by the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. Email her at email@example.com.