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Authors: Gwenyth Swain

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BOOK: Riding to Washington
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We drove across farm fields and through cities, over rivers and mountains. The roll of the wheels put me to sleep until we lurched to a stop. We were at a gas station. Daddy's watch said it was nearly midnight.

Mrs. Taylor walked to the front to ask the driver a question. I only heard his answer. “No, Ma'am,” he told her. “I can't let you off here.”

She stared at the sign over the restroom door. “No Coloreds” it read. She sniffed in disgust. “I'm going,” she said.

Her voice made me rise to my feet. Suddenly, I needed to go, too.

“Sir,” I told the driver, “I got to go.”

“You could be getting yourself into trouble, young lady,” the driver warned.

“I got to go!” I said.

Mrs. Taylor and I walked arm in arm into the station, where a skinny boy not much older than me was trying to stay awake behind a counter. “Young man,” Mrs. Taylor said, “we would like the key to the lady's room, please.”

Her voice was so strong and clear it woke that boy right up. He looked at one of us, then the other.

“I. . . I can't let you in there,” he told Mrs. Taylor. Her arm stiffened in mine.

“Yes, you can,” I said.

They both looked down at me, startled.

“Sure,” I went on. “It's like my mama and daddy always say, ‘You got the choice to do the right thing or not.' (I didn't say that they usually told me that right after I'd gotten into trouble.)

The boy blinked, confused.

I kept on, like I was talking to a friend. “Mama says I make a lot of wrong choices, but I think letting us in would be the right one now.”

The boy's cheeks flushed red. He coughed. Then he looked the other way and shoved the key across the counter, like he'd mislaid it—right in plain sight.

In the bathroom, there was a machine with a long towel looping out of it. I reached up to yank on it as hard as I could to see how much towel was inside, but I stopped short. Mrs. Taylor gave me a look while she straightened her hat.

When we took the key back, our thank-yous overlapped. The boy tried to look busy. He didn't have a “you're welcome” to spare for us.

Mr. Taylor was singing as we pulled back onto the road:

Get on board, children, children!
Get on board, children, children!
Get on board, children, children!
Let's fight for human rights!

This time, the words made sense and I sang along.

It was just getting light when we finally parked in a field. Never in my life had I seen so many buses. It was like the biggest basketball tourney you could imagine, only we were all rooting for the same team.

“Morning,” Mrs. Taylor called to me as we left the bus.

“Fine weather,” Daddy said to no one in particular.

None of us looked like we'd been riding on a bus for a day and a night. We all looked as if we'd just woken up to a day we'd been dreaming about.

Later, when Dr. King was speaking, we all stood together in a group. We were miles away from the podium, but would you believe it? I was sure he was looking right at me.

Dr. King's speech sounded fine. The way he said it was just like music. But I wondered to myself: why is he telling me about his dream? What's it got to do with me?

Then I felt a hand resting soft on my shoulder. Mrs. Taylor gazed at me, tears streaming down her face. And that's when I knew it: that the dream belonged not just to Dr. King and Mrs. Taylor and her husband, but to me and Daddy, and maybe even to that boy at the gas station, too.

Author's Note

The buses began arriving just after daybreak on August 28, 1963. They parked in long lines, bumper nudging bumper, windows cracked open to let in a breeze. It was going to be a hot, muggy day. The thousands of people who got off the buses weren't too concerned about the heat. Even though many hadn't slept much the night before, they weren't especially tired. The way my father remembers it, the mood was festive, and “there was a feeling of peace.”

My father and grandfather, both white men from south-central Indiana, rode the bus to Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others speak on that August day. I was only two years old at the time, but I have long wondered what it might have been like to be a child at the great March on Washington.

BOOK: Riding to Washington
8.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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