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The Race Card Project: Six-Word Essays
Wed August 28, 2013
Joining The '63 March, Despite Parents' Racial Biases
Originally published on Wed August 28, 2013 8:41 pm
There would be no last call on the day of the March on Washington, and Manny and Mitzie Landsman had no choice in the matter. Their D.C. shop, Metro Liquors, was closed for business on Aug. 28, 1963, just one of 1,900 businesses ordered by local authorities not to sell, pour or wrap any alcoholic beverage from 12:01 that morning until 2 a.m. the next day.
Maury Landsman, whose parents ran Metro Liquors, doesn't think his parents actually minded the order that much. For one, his father rarely got vacations, Landsman says. Manny Landsman worked six days a week at the store in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, which was a largely poor and black community back then — not the trendy spot it is today.
The second reason, Landsman says, stemmed from his white father's typical, even stereotypical, views — views he held despite having some African-American employees. "I recall my father used to say black men always had mustaches and drank a lot."
Maury, 20 at the time, didn't share those views. While the liquor store order left Maury 's parents free to stay home, Maury had different ideas about how he would spend the day.
Resisting His Parents' "White-Privileged Attitudes"
The decision by the Board of D.C. Commissioners, and similar ones in the nearby Maryland suburbs, temporarily depressed the local economy on an otherwise festive day. For the most part, consumers and local residents not participating in the march stayed home rather than going to work or running errands. Newspapers often describe the atmosphere as a quiet Sunday.
D.C. Commissioner Walter N. Tobriner's written statement, quoted in The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, said the order wasn't a reflection on the nonviolent demonstrators, "who will be under strict discipline." His concern was that nonparticipants "might well tend to disturb the peace and quiet of the city" under the influence of alcohol.
So while his parents stayed home and watched the march on TV, Landsman headed down to the Mall. He had come home to the Washington suburbs two months earlier, after two years at the University of Chicago. He knew about the march from his student activism in the Windy City, he says, and made up his mind early that he was going. He even invited some of his Chicago buddies to camp out at his parents' apartment for the demonstration.
Landsman also joined some of the new and growing left-leaning groups of the time — the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society and the Northern Student Movement. While his civil rights activism began while he was a college student, he says his views may have taken shape even before then.
"I was raised, in fact, in segregated schools until I was in about the sixth grade," he says. "I went from kindergarten through high school in D.C. public schools." It wasn't until the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that the city's schools were integrated. He says his parents had no black friends when they lived in D.C., and he only visited other black students in their homes, never the other way around.
"My parents were strange, politically," he says. "I'd describe them as working-class Democrats. They weren't actually racists, but they shared racial attitudes — what's now called white-privileged attitudes — of the majority of white people in the United States."
Landsman had debates over race with his father's lawyer, a man he occasionally called "Uncle" and who was the son of Jewish immigrants, like his father. "I would get into arguments about how Jews, given the history of the Holocaust, could be bigoted. I remember ... walking out of his house a couple of times," he says.
There were prevailing tensions at home between Landsman, his parents and their upwardly mobile friends and relatives. It was no better after he told them of his plans to attend the march. Safety, not politics, was their issue, he says. "[It's] not that they were opposed. They were worried about my getting hurt. But I went anyway and they didn't try to stop me."
"Strangers, Black And White, Holding Hands"
Landsman's memories of the March on Washington revolve around feelings of "being lifted up," he says. "I was on the left side of the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial. I can capture in my mind some of the songs. Some of John Lewis' speech is still in my mind.
"I remember Marian Anderson, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan. I remember Joan Baez. I always found her singing uplifting, and 'We Shall Overcome' — that was amazing."
As the crowd marched, "there were strangers, black and white, holding hands" and singing that song and other spirituals that marked the movement, he says, like "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" and "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around."
Landsman can vaguely imagine his parents watching the day's events on their black-and-white TV but can't recall if they ever discussed it. And the next day, when liquor stores reopened, it was business as usual.
In the end, Landsman received praise for his activism from his parents' friends, which he says made his parents secretly proud.
Now 70, Landsman is a retired University of Minnesota law professor. Looking back, he's proud of his activism, first around civil rights and later against the Vietnam War. His wife, Julie, has been similarly involved, writing and lecturing on education and race. He describes his son, Aaron, as a "good progressive, doing his part."
When asked to offer a six-word statement on race relations today, 50 years after the march, for The Race Card Project, Landsman put it this way: "Progress, but we are falling back."