WASHINGTON When Daniel R. Smith was born dirt poor more than three-quarters of a century ago, there were only about 20 other blacks in his small Connecticut town. His own father had been a child slave in Virginia in 1862. Smith served as a medic in Korea in the years just after the Army had been desegregated.
And in August 1963, he found himself standing beside the Reflecting Pool with tens of thousands of others listening to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history.
I felt that this was the beginning of a new era for black Americans, that whites would respect blacks more, Smith said. From then on, I thought, America is America, it has become what the Constitution stands for.
He intends to join others at events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But what is often on Smiths mind, as it is on the minds of others who attended and watched that historic event, is what has happened in the five decades since King detailed his vision of a society in which people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Energized by his experience at the march, Smith headed to the Deep South to study veterinary medicine at what was then the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but drifted into civil rights work and even marched from Selma to Montgomery with King in 1965.
He ran anti-poverty and literacy programs in the poorest corners of Mississippi, having his share of scrapes along the way, before returning to work for the federal government and settling in Washington.
And now, five decades after the march, Smith, 81, lives on a leafy street in a diverse neighborhood in northeastern Washington, D.C., with his second wife, who is white.
Certainly it is a different-looking society than it was in 1963. A black man is president, for one thing, and young minorities have an array of opportunities that their parents were limited to dreaming about.
When you look at the places that were typically occupied by people who were not racial minorities, whether its the legal profession or the medical profession or major companies, there are now racial minorities in those places, said Christopher Bracey, a law professor at George Washington University who writes about constitutional law and civil rights. The changes are tangible. You can see it everywhere. Yes, there are still disparities, but there is no doubt there has been progress.
Smith, who in 1963 was a social worker at Norwich State Hospital in Connecticut, had no intention of going to the march. There had been too many dire warnings in the news media and from political figures that the event might easily dissolve into violence.
I was really reluctant to go down and get gassed and get beat up, Smith said. But a white colleague at the hospital talked him into it. And so we drove down, with a lot of trepidation, he said.
Many of those who attended and studied the event say that the march that has passed into history does not exactly match the reality. Kings vision of a nonracial society, which has been embraced in subsequent years by leaders in both major parties, was just one face of the march, which focused just as much on issues of employment and economic equality.
There is a reason Dr. King is invoked by both conservatives and liberals, Bracey said. For conservatives, its because of his rhetoric about color blindness. To liberals, what is attractive is that he did speak directly to a substantive, progressive, racial justice agenda.
MYTHOLOGY OF SPEECH
What is troubling to some who lived through that era is the way the march and Kings speech have become romanticized, as if the march had been a kind of love-in, solving Americas racial problems on a golden wave of eloquence.
This is the way we have constructed our mythology, said Daniel Serwer, a professor at Johns Hopkins who as a white high school student in New Rochelle, N.Y., decided to join a bus caravan to the march. It was that, one day in 1963, America decided segregation was wrong and got rid of it, but thats not what happened. It was a really ugly battle for years.
Despite the warnings of violence, there was not even a whisper of it the day of the march. Instead, Smith said, a festive atmosphere dominated.
People were in the trees, wading in the pool, he said. They were talking, shaking hands, meeting people. Men would carry young kids on their shoulders. Everyone was friendly.
When people talk about that day, they tend to go in one of two directions, said William P. Jones, author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights and a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
One tendency is to say, well, the march was about affirming the moral rightness of racial equality, and that was totally done so it was a great success, Jones said. The other is to say, no, we still have racial and economic inequality, and its actually increasing, so the march was a total failure. I actually tend to come down on the side of thinking that a lot of what the goals of the march were realized.
Smith has his own way of thinking about it.
Its like you run a race and you hit a wall and you have to work with yourself to get past the wall, he said. Thats what happened to America. We made great progress and then we hit a wall and the wall started to push back, and America just has not pushed through that wall yet.