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50 Years After the March on Washington, Americans Share Their Secret Thoughts on Race

The Race Card Project proves that 6 words can really pack a punch

Martin Luther King Jr. I have a dream (AFP/Getty Images)

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters from the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington. — AFP/Getty Images

"I'm only Asian when it's convenient."

"Too black for black men's love."

"Passing. No one knows I'm native."

The Most Common Words

There's a lot of heavy stuff in these small essays, but it's real, and for a journalist who has spent a lifetime listening to people share their stories, it has been a special kind of education for me.

In America our conversations about race are often tethered to large public moments — trials, elections, marches, hearings, court rulings — and high-concept words like "justice" and "rights" and "freedom."

But in these essays, the most common words are not lofty or majestic. And the famous names of the civil rights movement do not dominate the discussion. Instead, the words that surface over and over again speak to personal encounters: "neighborhood," "hair," "classroom," "grandma," "human." And that's because the events that define our experience with race are often small, unpredictable moments that leave a big impression.

That's something worth thinking about this summer, as we commemorate the March on Washington.

Martin Luther King, of course, was the man of that day, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Dark tie. French cuffs. His hand outstretched, waving to a crowd so thick it seemed to go on forever.

Based on the work I now do, I can't help but wonder about the faces in that crowd. Those who marched with signs demanding fair housing and equal pay. Those who got swept up in the moment and skipped work to join the masses. The bus drivers and the cameramen. The police officers and the nurses who staffed the medical tent. I look at that crowd and I see a potential sea of stories that might help us better understand not just that moment in American history but America itself.

Yes, our nation's history is the stuff of holidays, postage stamps and multipart documentaries. But when it comes to race, history is also more gritty, like grains of sand that build up and eventually tip the scales or alter the terrain.

Perhaps the nation could take a cue from the people who marched on Washington on that hot August day 50 years ago. They had the courage to speak out. But an ever changing America requires another kind of courage: the courage to share ... and to listen.

Perhaps if we share our stories and appreciate the "I" in "history," we might be able to better appreciate the "us" in the U.S. When it comes to racial tension, that just might be our pathway to being free at last.

Michele Norris is a host and special correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR). Her memoir, The Grace of Silence, was published in 2010.

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