Although I had spent most of the previous year working for the Gene McCarthy for president campaign — the leading anti-Vietnam War candidate of the 1968 election — I didn’t get to personally participate in a mass anti-war demonstration until April 5, 1969, fifty-one years ago. As a 17-year-old, I was impressed.
The march was held in New York City. I and two friends drove up together from our New Jersey suburbs. We rented a double room at a YMCA (in or near Greenwich Village, as best as I recall). We managed to increase the sleeping capacity of the small room when we came upon another room that was in the middle of being cleaned. The door was wide open and the beds were stripped. Most importantly, no one was around. So we grabbed one of the mattresses and ran down the hall to our room. Voila! Accommodations for three.
On Saturday the 5th, we protesters gathered in Bryant Park and eventually marched up Sixth Avenue (the so-called Avenue of the Americas) to Central Park, where the rally was held. The march was kept to one side of Sixth Avenue so traffic could continue to flow. Every once in a while, police would hold up the march to allow crosstown traffic to cross the road. It was all very polite. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people participated.
I don’t recall any of the speeches or speakers. I don’t recall any of the musical performers, although I’d bet that there were some big names involved. It was New York City, after all, in 1969. What I do remember quite clearly is feeling something I’d never experienced before — the feeling of being part of a movement. A mass movement. It felt powerful. It was exhilarating. It was inspiring. I wanted more.
The arc of my life started taking shape in 1968 during the McCarthy campaign. The anti-war march in New York cemented it. I’ve been marching ever since. And when this coronavirus thing is finally over, we all better be marching again.