Although I’m a little late for MLK Day, I wanted to pay homage by sharing this posting with you. It originally appeared on Girl With Pen, Jan 22nd, 2009
In 1953, I went to Washington D.C. to see Eisenhower’s presidential inauguration. I had entered a national contest for students and written in my 25 words or less essay with great enthusiasm. I remember my older sister saying smugly that she wouldn’t hold her breath until I won.
But I wasn’t really surprised when I won; I expected to with all the confidence of an 11-year old white girl whose world had not yet been limited by her gender. It wasn’t until years later that I realized my winning probably had more to do with being in the same class as the daughter of the corporate sponsor rather than my essay.
Each of the 35 winning students got to take an adult along, and I choose my mother. There are special things about that trip that I still remember. I used my mother’s movie camera and used up almost a whole reel filming clouds out the airplane window. I climbed the Washington monument and heard Spike Jones and his band play in a night club. I remember the inaugural parade and how cold it was.
At the inauguration festival that evening, I used my own box camera to take photos of Marge and Gower Champion as they danced across the big stage. I was little for my age, so I managed to weave in and out of the crowd and squeeze in up close so I could get a better shot of John Wayne, who was my hero that year. Apparently I gave someone a push and stepped on his foot, because I was suddenly lifted up in the air and moved unceremoniously to one side.
My mother later told me it was Vice President Nixon’s foot I stepped on. She was mortified. Years later, after Nixon’s resignation, she told the story with great pride.
I came home and put together a scrapbook of my adventure. I still have it, 56 years later. But what I remember most about that trip never made it into the scrapbook.
The students whose essays had won the trip were selected from across the nation. None of them knew anyone else, except for me and the sponsor’s daughter. The group was largely middle class and all white except for one girl who was African American. She was just a couple of years older than I was and she had brought her mother along too. But Washington D.C. was still segregated in January of 1953. The hotel management took one look at her and her mother and refused to give them rooms with the rest of us. The trip organizers then refused to allow us to be separated and all the reservations were canceled. It felt like we had to wait around for hours. Finally, we ended up having to go across the state line and finding a motel that would take us all.
We had been looking forward to seeing history in the making, as my mother said. She promised it would be something I would always remember. Well, the capital of our country gave 35 students an unexpected education.
Yesterday, as I watched the inauguration of Barak Obama as the 44th President of the United States and the first African-American to hold that position, I shed a few tears. I hope my sister contest winner was watching too.