That was the word written across her baseball cap as she waived to the crowds with her beaming smile. Rosa Parks, a Civil Rights icon for her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger in 1955, was just 20 feet away from me during the historical Million Man March on Washington, DC., on October 16, 1995.
I was finally going to see her and even more excited I was going to get to photograph her! As she was getting escorted down the long driveway, I remember that baseball cap and her waving proudly to the cheering crowds. I was wedged between two men, one was holding a large video camera. There was no digital photography back then, no instant gratification. I didn’t have time to switch lenses so I kept my zoom lens on because there was no time or room for me to go through my bag. It was ridiculously crowded at the front lines of the peaceful protest and I was crouching down to try and sneak a peak and get a shot of “the mother of the freedom movement.”
Since I was a teenager, I always felt like I was living in the wrong decade. I was obsessed with the 1960’s and all of the changes happening in our country. I was a history minor in college. I loved Russian history in particular, but the post World War II era of American History was so fascinating to me.
It was my senior year of college and I was lucky enough to be taking a few honors courses; one specifically on Martin Luther King, Jr and the other on the 1960’s. I was in my glory learning all about the protests and Civil Rights Movement, SNCC and The Black Panther Party. I was totally enamored. When I heard that Washington, DC, would be hosting a Million Man March, I knew I had to be there to witness history as I fantasized so many times about being present for Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963 where he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This was my opportunity to witness what I knew was going to be a historic event.
As a journalism major and photographer, I knew I had to cut class that day and go. My boyfriend at the time was up for the adventure so we decided making the journey was important. I remember telling my instructors that I would be missing class that day and they thought it was the best excuse ever given for missing class and wished me luck. They couldn’t wait to hear my tales from the day when I returned.
However, our parents didn’t have the same view or share in our excitement. They were worried for us and feared we would be put in a dangerous situation. As a parent now, I can completely understand their concern. But I was young and ambitious and just like other historic events that happened after this, I had to go and tell the story from my perspective. No one really knew how the day was going to go. Sure the intent was to be peaceful and to promote unity, but with Louis Farrakhan at the helm, we honestly didn’t know what to expect. The only thing we knew was that we needed to be present and to witness this for ourselves.
We left before dawn that morning and drove the 3.5 hours from the Rider University campus to Washington, DC. I was filled with excitement and adrenaline and 4 rolls of film for my Nikon 8008s camera (which I still own) Just driving through town and seeing all of the men and their sons and crowds of people, it was truly awesome. People were wearing African colors and holding signs. I can still see that so vividly. It took us a while to find a parking space as the city was packed with busses and people.
I knew Rosa Parks was going to be speaking that day. As a history buff, I wanted so badly to hear her speak and if I was lucky enough, to grab a photo. If you have ever been to DC you know that the walk from The Lincoln Memorial to The Capitol is a long one. You can imagine it being even longer when packed with a million people (although estimates that day were around 800,000 people). I remember I was having lunch a few blocks off of the mall and the restaurant had a TV with the news on and we were watching the coverage. The announcer said Rosa Parks would be speaking after the commercial break. We quickly paid the bill and literally ran from one end of the mall to the other (at 21 I could actually do that!) As I approached The Capitol building where all of the speeches were happening, it got more and more crowded and more difficult to maneuver through the crowds.. I remember I had to climb over a cement wall holding my camera bag and I couldn’t quite make it. A few folks hoisted me up and helped me over reminding me I had little time to actually see Rosa Parks as she had just started speaking and I still had to force my way to the front of the crowd somehow. I remember actually thinking to myself that I wish someone had photographed that moment, because it would have made an awesome image. (some things never change!) I honestly don’t remember how we did it, but we got to the front row! I didn’t have a press pass, I was just a girl with a camera and a dream.We missed the speech but were off to the right side of the podium and I witnessed Rosa Parks getting wheeled away. As she passed me I had the opportunity to only take 2 images before she was gone. The man with the video camera jumped in front of me and blocked my view and I feared I missed the shot.
I came all that way to possibly miss the shot!
I decided not to let it get me down as we walked the crowds and talked to people and I got to photograph some amazing families. I tried to make the best of the historic day and figured I had to wait until I developed the film to see what my results were so there was no sense in worrying about it until I knew for sure.
My 21 year old blonde bobbed self stood out like a sore thumb that day, but I never felt threatened or in danger. I actually remember one altercation with a rude person questioning why we were there; especially me as a white woman. However, a few strangers came to my defense and reminded him of the peaceful day and he quickly shut up. But true to my personality, I struck up conversations with so many wonderful people. I got to hear their stories, why the day was so important to them and how far they traveled. Many of them commended me for being there. Everyone was truly joyous and peaceful and I remember at that young age feeling so hopeful for the future of race relations in our country. I saw so much love and good and it was probably one of the most poignant days of my life.
When we returned home late that night we were exhausted yet excited as we knew we participated in something so incredible. I couldn’t wait to drop off my film the next morning to see my results. There was one photo in particular that I was anxious to see. When the Moto Photo employee handed me my packages of developed film, I flipped through the prints quickly looking for just one special image.
I got it!
I shrieked with joy holding my glossy 4X6 black and white print and I couldn’t believe one frame was salvaged. The other frame was indeed cut off by the man with the video camera as I suspected, but another image perfectly showcased Rosa Parks smiling and waving to the crowds. I captured history. It was perfection.
In 1995 there were no smart phones, no Youtube or social media. I have no photographs or selfies of me working that day or with the people that I got to meet. I have only my memories and how that day changed my life. My images from The Million Man March went on to be exhibited in the first solo exhibit Rider University had at the time in January of 1996. I spent my Christmas break in the darkroom developing the prints myself for that exhibit. It was a labor of love and passion. In 2002, my first book was published entitled “Dialogue 3” A few of my Million Man March images were included in there. But many of my images haven’t been seen since 1995.
It’s amazing how different the pre 911 world was. I’m trying to imagine how something like this would go down today. I was able to climb The Washington Monument to get a photograph, which I probably wouldn’t be able to do today. We got to the front of The Capitol to see the speakers escorted away without a press pass. Although they spoke from a bullet -proof glass encased podium, there wasn’t a massive amount of police present as there would be today. We were never stopped by police or security to check our bags and I carried my camera bag with me all day. And we clearly didn’t fear a terrorist threat or bombing. It was the furthest thing from our minds.
How far have we really come in our quest for peace and unity in the past 20 years?