See a dream in yourself: Why I marched

By: Mark Clements

Many of us hoped we were about to see the beauty of history being made when we made our way to our nation’s capital for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The event was designed to show appreciation for the sacrifices of Dr. Martin Luther King and many other activists to help African American people gain a form of identity.

I was excited getting on the bus with all sorts of activists. The bus left Chicago on August 23 at 5:42 p.m. amid a lot of television cameras focused on those boarding the buses. It was quite a trip, riding all night in somewhat uncomfortable conditions, looking at the mountains in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. We finally arrived in Washington, D.C., at 10:17 a.m. the next day. We were all excited.

But what started as excitement quickly became frustration as I listened to those addressing the audience. None of the major speakers from the platform provided an agenda for those attending to take back to their communities, school groups and organizations, nor did they effectively address issues that have handcuffed people for years in our criminal justice system.

I believe that if leaders such as Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton had used this remarkable occasion to provide direction to people, then I could say that it had been used to promote King’s dream. Unfortunately, I did not feel they did.

In the City of Chicago, one former commander, Jon Burge, has cost taxpayers more than $83 million, and many of the men he tortured confessions from are kept in prison to this day without due process. In New York City, police are gunning down youth without justification. More than 1,000 people are in prison based off on the faulty testimony of a Mississippi pathologist. And 50 schools closed in Chicago all at one time earlier this year—all schools being in Black and Brown communities. But these issues were not addressed by the majority of those speaking.

If you have ever been pumped up only to suffer a major letdown, you know how I felt. Leaving Washington, many of us in the bus felt disappointment about the leaders who were selected to speak.

A month and a half after, conditions have not changed. Schools fail kids based on where they reside, police remain abusive and quick to shoot, the name of Troy Davis is a lost memory to many, and there is no agenda being put forward by national leaders for how to create accountability of the police, prosecutors and judges who use their legal authority to railroad innocent people to prison. These are just some of the issues screaming for national attention—we need an agenda nationally to confront them.

I attended the March on Washington to bring attention to wrongful convictions in this nation, police torture that occurred under Jon Burge, and the need for juvenile offenders in all states to be viewed as youth by our judicial system, by wiping out natural life sentences for juvenile offenders.

I did my best to talk to every person who would stop. Many did, and I had many great conversations with all kinds of people. But I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen on these issues if they were being confronted nationally, by the best-known figures who were speaking at the March? What would happen if there was a galvanizing national movement with a focus on winning real systemic change, like in the 1960s? If there was a movement of people who really challenged the wrong direction our country is headed in, and the leaders of that movement pushed a progressive agenda to improve the conditions of the less fortunate?

Being an African American who served 28 years inside prison as a youth sentenced to natural life, all while being innocent, when I listened to leaders not offering any remedy to the people, I don’t wonder why we suffer. I see why.

Since the leaders at the March on Washington didn’t provide an agenda, let me give you one. You have loved ones on death row, you have loved ones serving natural life sentences, and many have been victimized by police and the criminal justice system.

This requires you to stand up and not look for a leader—but become a leader yourself, and see the Dream in you.