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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

Michele Norris; race card project (Ty Cole)

NPR correspondent Michele Norris visits the Lincoln Memorial, site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech." — Ty Cole

Hot and thirsty after a day of shopping, Deborah Ossege skipped away from her aunt and cousins to take a sip from a water fountain. Along with the gurgle of water, Ossege heard gasps and laughter behind her.

Join the Discussion: Where were you the day Martin Luther King Jr. was shot?

It was the summer of 1962, and Ossege was visiting Montgomery, Alabama, from her home in Cincinnati. Unknowingly, the 9-year-old had drunk from a fountain marked "Colored." Ossege is white, and that sip meant she slipped past the color line, violating the strict Jim Crow rules meant to keep blacks and whites apart. But when her Southern cousin pointed out her faux pas, young Ossege didn't flinch. Instead, she shrugged and said simply, "It didn't taste any different to me."

On August 28 of the following summer — exactly 50 years ago — 250,000 Americans descended on Washington, D.C., to demand an end to Jim Crow.

Millions more watched on television or listened to the radio as the eloquent heroes of the civil rights movement demanded the right to vote, to attend integrated schools and, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. so memorably put it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to be judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Yet as crucial as that monumental March on Washington was to our nation's growth as a democratic society, small acts like Deborah Ossege's may have been just as crucial, because progress doesn't only come with the roar of a bullhorn and the thomp of a thousand heels on pavement. Sometimes it's as quiet as the internal ticking of a watch: a small flutter of synaptic activity signaling that the time has come for something or someone to change.

I’ve had the chance to glimpse some of those small evolutions, thanks to a project I launched a couple of years ago. I call it the Race Card Project, and it’s where I invite Americans to share their experience with race or cultural identity. The catch: They have to do it in one sentence with only six words. I’ve found that those six words can pack quite a punch.

Next page: Family secrets and Aunt Jemima. »

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