Commentary: Why I Came to Washington This Day

Commentary: Why I Came to Washington This Day

Commentary: Why I Came to Washington This Day

Keith Boykin commemorates Aug. 28, the day of the original March on Washington.

Published August 28, 2013

I remember the day it happened. I was a young child in St. Louis, Missouri, reading the horoscopes in the paper one day when I discovered two incredibly important events had taken place "This Week In History," the same week as my birthday.

The first was Michael Jackson's birthday. He was born on Aug. 29. I was born on Aug. 28. Although we were seven years apart, the new information gave me a special sense of kinship, an invisible bond, with this young superstar I had never met.

The second was the historic March on Washington. I was born on the same day, exactly two years after Dr. King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. When I discovered the connection, I was convinced, in the way that children are convinced of things, there was a reason for it all. Oh, how I wished I could have been alive to hear Dr. King speak that day, but I vowed then, with all the certainty of youth, to dedicate my life to his dream.

Ever since I made that discovery, Aug. 28 has held special significance for me. I went back and learned everything I could about that date. Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to his first minor league contract on Aug. 28, 1945. Young Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi on Aug. 28, 1955. And 250,000 demonstrators marched on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

All that happened before I was born. But as I grew from child to man, the date continued to hold its significance for me.

Aug. 28 was the day when protests erupted on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968. It was the day when Hurricane Katrina reached its peak strength in 2005. And it was the day when Barack Obama formally accepted the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

I was there that evening, standing on the convention floor in Invesco Field in Denver as my former classmate made history on my birthday. A poignant moment, it stood in sharp relief to my own experience just four years earlier.

Back in 2004, I competed in a mock presidential campaign reality show called American Candidate. We traveled to Washington, D.C., and I recorded a campaign TV commercial in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In that 30-second spot, I spoke what I thought were widely accepted truths about the importance of fulfilling Dr. King's dream, but white focus group testers who watched the ad accused me of "playing the race card" by mentioning King, even though I hadn't specifically mentioned race in my commercial. Simply acknowledging an African-American hero made me racially polarizing for some.

That's why I was excited to see Sen. Barack Obama speak on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King's speech in Denver, and why I was determined to see President Obama speak at the 50th anniversary today. There was a long history that led to this day.

When I was a child, my great-grandfather told me stories about life in segregated Mississippi before he moved up north. My grandmother had lived through the days of segregation herself in St. Louis. And my mother saw her first doctor as an infant at the segregated Homer G. Phillips Hospital in the same city.

My family members were not civil rights activists, but they were pioneers of their own. They created possibilities for me they could never have enjoyed in their lives. They never had the opportunity to graduate from college. They never imagined one of their own would go to law school. And they never dreamed they would meet a president or know someone who would work in the White House. They were forced to sacrifice opportunities in their own lives simply because of the time and circumstances of their birth.

The day before my birthday this week, my mother, stepfather and I spent hours listening to old music and reminiscing about the past. I had just left Washington from an earlier march on Saturday, and now I was going back. As I kissed her at the airport in Houston, my mom wished me a happy birthday. She was disappointed I couldn't stay for a birthday dinner, but she understood. This August 28 would be a special moment in history, something I had waited years to see. I had to go to Washington. And she knew it.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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