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The Washington Post’s She the People: Jamaican immigrants reflect on America’s promise on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

Published: August 24 at 5:16 pm


Dr King

(Martin Luther King Jr. and former Howard University President James Nabrit Jr. during a Charter Day ceremony on March 2, 1965. (Photo courtesy of Howard University’s Moorland-Springarn Research Center))

The blood of the island nation Jamaica runs through my veins. Love for the United States of America and her promise of freedom and justice for all runs through my heart and soul. Both are gifts from my parents who in 1961, chose to migrate from Jamaica to the United States despite the flagrant racism against blacks in America because they believed in America’s promise and in Howard University, one of the nation’s most prominent historically black colleges and universities.

Immigrants from the land of wood and water, Bob Marley, and Marcus Garvey, father of the back to Africa movement of the 1920′s, my parents arrived in the United States just two years before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The view from Jamaica was somewhat different because Jamaica was then, and is today, a predominately black nation.  Slavery was formally abolished by the British government by an act of law in 1833.  Although there were continuing pockets of racial prejudice  in Jamaica before their migration to the U.S., the memory of the Maroon revolutions against the British had long given rise to a permanent concept of self-determination by all Jamaicans of African descent, regardless of their station in life.

From my father’s perspective, the movement began for him when his father, and my grandfather,  praised the courage of Paul Robeson, whose activism cost him his career.  As a young boy in Jamaica, my father also related to the greatness of Garvey. He believed deeply that both Robeson and Garvey had paved the way for Dr. King and the civil rights movement taking place at that time in the United States. Although they didn’t know one another in Jamaica, my mother was as moved by the American battle for civil rights as my father, because of the work of men like Garvey and King.

So, despite the racism they knew they would face, my parents made their way to Howard University in Washington, D.C. They did not to participate in demonstrations because all of their time was occupied by school and work to support their growing family.

They brought four children into a world they knew might not always be kind to them. As soon as my sisters, brother and I could read, they introduced us to biographies of Frederick Douglass, Dr. Charles Drew, Marcus Garvey,  C.L.R. James, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Madame C.J. Walker, Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King and scores of others.

Together, my parents taught the four of us pride and self-respect when they willingly lost jobs because they refused to enter a work place through a back door. Together, they taught us that black is beautiful when they withdrew me from a school that reprimanded me for coloring the people in my coloring book brown rather than white (and saluted me for doing so). They taught us the importance of academics and how to deal with the ignorance of low expectations when they had me assigned to a new guidance counselor within hours of another telling me to focus on track and field rather than my grades.

 My mother taught us the beauty of feminism and the importance of community activism and service to others when she wore her Afro, donned peace and black power medallions, and went to work at United Planning Organization.  She taught us perseverance and self-love when she prepared us for the fact that a day might come when someone would call us “N—-r,” and we would have to learn to ignore such ignorance.

My father taught us the art of what I call “smart dissidence” and the value of self-reliance when as a student, he took on self-employment as a taxi cab driver to support his family rather than accept employment from anyone who saw him as less than a man because of the color of his skin or his Jamaican accent. He taught us that we could be anything that we wished by being competitive, keeping his eye on the prize,  being a brilliant student and a man of honor above all else. He taught us social consciousness when on a bitter cold day, he took my sisters, brother and me to a rally on the Mall where Stevie Wonder and the Congressional Black Caucus officially launched the campaign to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday.

My parents tell me that on August 28, 1963, when Dr. King spoke, they listened intently and were exhilarated.  My father took part in the events of the day by shuttling people to and from the periphery of the Ellipse in his taxi cab. He says that he stayed and listened to the speeches. My mother listened to them on the radio.

My parents have been U.S. citizens for many years, and feel very privileged and proud to have joined the many immigrants of many countries who have been able to realize American citizenship and the American dream.

This afternoon, there were many calls for equal access to an excellent education in order for us to realize the dream. Asean Johnson, a student at Marcus Garvey School in Chicago, the youngest speaker at the March today, told the world that he marched for “education, justice and freedom” and that “[e]very school deserves equal funding and resources.”

My parents share Asean’s sentiments. They feel, my father said, that one’s ability to “forge an existence and progress by self-help is the continuing greatness of our country” but that this can only be realized through an excellent education at the K-12 level and in higher education. It is their belief that if we are to realize Dr. King and Asean’s dream, pre-school and early education, particularly in low-income communities is key.

Like my parents, my sisters , brother and I know that education is the key. Like our parents, the four of us attended Howard. After Howard, one of us took the path of self-determination through entrepreneurship, and the rest of us decided upon law as a vocation and attended the Georgetown University Law Center. Unlike America in the 1960′s, we didn’t need the protection of the National Guard to earn our degrees, as did some trailblazing African Americans who were the first to enroll in predominantly white colleges and universities.

As a nation, we’ve come a long way.  I know, just as my parents did almost 50 years ago, that we are a great nation and that America’s promise of freedom and justice for all will one day be realized.

BernardMichelle D. Bernard is the president & CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy and is the author of “Moving America Toward Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 1963-2013.”  Follow her on Twitter @michellebernard. 



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