In my mother's telling, I exist because of the March on Washington.
Her account went something like this: In 1963, she was a student at Goddard College, an experimental school in Vermont that attracted the forerunners of the hippies. My father had come to Goddard the previous year, and though my mom first noticed him throwing peas in the dining hall (this seems to be an inherited trait) she didn't meet him, she said, until that day on the Mall 50 years ago this week, when Goddard students who had arrived separately executed a daft plan to meet near the Washington Monument.
Alas, my father, when I asked him about it last week, had no such recollection. My mother died five years ago, so I'll never know whether her account — my founding narrative — is apocryphal, or whether memory of it has been clouded by things people did to their minds in the '60s. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Whether they first met that day or not, my future parents, 20 years old at the time, were both there for the signal event of their generation.
“I can still see the scene,” my father told me, recalling his spot along the south side of the reflecting pool from which he could see the speakers at the Lincoln Memorial and hear the speeches clearly. “When people talk about Martin Luther King, that's my connection. It's a small connection — no handshake or anything — but I'm proud to have been there.”
I envy him that connection, to a cause that stirred so many Americans and defined a generation. My generation has no equivalent.
I was born five years after the March on Washington and three weeks after King's assassination. My mother told me that in those grim days of April 1968, she wondered whether she had done the right thing bringing a child into the world. I grew up on Joan Baez and The Kingston Trio. A poster hung in my bedroom informed me: “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” My first political memories were of the George McGovern campaign and of a boycott of Nestle for pushing infant formula on kids in poor countries.