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Locals join nation in pausing to remember the March on Washington and the Movement

3rd September 2013   ·   0 Comments

Scores of locals were part of the commemorative “March on Washington” on Aug. 24 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the event that helped turn a big page in the nation’s civil rights history. Some locals who took part in the 1963 march joined the nation in reflecting on what the historic event meant then and now.

Locals attended both the Aug. 24 commemoration of the Historic March as well as a smaller gathering on the National Mall to mark the actual date on which the fateful gathering was held.

On August 28, 1963, more 250,000 people marched through the District of Columbia to the Lincoln Memorial, calling for jobs and freedom.

On Aug. 24, Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation’s first Black attorney general, thanked those who marched a half century earlier. He said he would not be in office, nor would Obama be president, without them.

“They marched in spite of animosity, oppression and brutality because they believed in the greatness of what this nation could become and despaired of the founding promises not kept,” Holder said.

Holder said the spirit of the 1963 march now demands equality for gays, Latinos, women, the disabled and others. Keeping with that theme, those in attendance represented a grab-bag of causes advocating gay rights, organized labor and voting rights.

Congressman John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from the 1963 march, railed against a recent Supreme Court decision that effectively erased a key anti-discrimination provision of the Voting Rights Act, whose enactment in 1965 marked a major turning point in the struggle of Black Americans for equality. Lewis, of Georgia, was a leader of a 1965 march, where police beat and gassed marchers who demanded access to voting booths.

“I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us,” he said. “You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You’ve got to stand up. Speak up, speak out and get in the way.”

“It was once in a lifetime we felt, if you didn’t go now it’ll never happen again,” the Rev. Samson “Skip” Alexander, who participated in the 1963 March on Washington, told Fox 8 News about the original march.

The journey to Washington had been a difficult one. Segregation ruled the south. There had been a rash of attacks on civil rights workers, including the murders of Medgar Evers and Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney in Miss., attacks on the Freedom Riders and the bombing of a Black church that claimed the lives of four Black girls,

Alexander, who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders on a host of civil rights campaigns, said he remembers how New Orleanians were excited to be heading north for 1963 March on Washington.

“We were in an old raggedy bus that was out of Harvey, Louisi­ana…They didn’t know how we were going to get back but all we had to do there is get there, they said, and we’d have food and we sleep on the bus and then we could go to the hotel and they’d give us permission to wash up,” he told Fox 8 News.

Other locals played important roles not only at the March on Washington, but throughout the south.

“I joined Rev. [Avery] Alexander and others on the picket lines, then ultimately got involved in the sit-ins on Canal Street,” recalls Jerome Smith, a Freedom Rider and founder of Tambourine & Fan in New Orleans.

As a Freedom Rider traveling across the Deep South during the Jim Crow era, Smith endured brutal beatings by angry white mobs, but looks back with pride on his participation in the March on Washington. Despite the progress made over the past 50 years, Smith says there are many challenges that lie ahead for those seeking to bring justice and equality to the United States.

“One of the things that was at the march that impressed me more than anything was that it was a collective feeling for goodness. And one of the failures of the march, we were not able to maintain that feeling during this 50 years,” Smith told Fox 8 News..

Dr. King’s now-legendary “I Have a Dream” speech was the final address at the end of a very long day at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.

Fifty years later, some may be surprised to learn that it was a New Orleans woman, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, who inspired King to share his “dream” with the nation and the world.

“Mahalia Jackson said it be­fore she got near Dr. King she wanted him to preach, and this why when he was on his speech and she was saying Martin, Martin, the dream Martin, the dream Martin,” Smith said.

Skip Alexander recounts how Dr. King started off slowly in his address, and did not immediately mesmerize the crowd—but he said that changed as King’s words began to crescendo.

“And we were just talking and whatever and he said ‘I have dream,’ and everybody stopped, everybody stopped and looked forward at the podium… It meant that there was a dream coming and that everybody would be free,” Alexander told Fox 8 News.

“It was a glorious time for Blacks to talk about this notion of jobs and freedom and how this was going to expand the American dream, not just for Blacks, but for America as well,” Dr. Dorothy Vick Smith, a Dillard University historian, told Fox 8 News.

The history of Black New Orleans is intricately interwoven with the history of the Civil Rights Movement. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose presidents included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, was founded in New Orleans. Andrew Young, one of Dr. King’s most trusted aides who went on to become Mayor of Atlanta and a U.S. ambassador, was born in New Orleans. King and others involved in the national civil rights struggle often met at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant to hold meetings and discuss strategies for various civil rights campaigns. Xavier University, the nation’s sole Black Catholic university, was utilized by Freedom Riders who needed a place to stay and regroup in New Orleans after they were physically assaulted by whites in Alabama. According to Wikipedia, Xavier President Dr. Norman Francis, the nation’s longest-serving university president, “played a he played a key role in Xavier’s decision to house the Freedom Riders – an integrated group testing application of the Supreme Court decision banning discrimination in interstate rail and bus travel – in a campus dormitory when they were flown to New Orleans by Federal Marshals after having been attacked in three Alabama cities (Anniston, Birming­ham and Montgomery).”

As previously noted, New Orleans native Mahalia Jackson was widely considered the Queen of Gospel music and often sang at major civil rights gatherings across the U.S. A feature-length film about the life of the talented singer, who used her voice to further the causes of civil rights, freedom and justice, is reportedly in the works with “American Idol” winner Fantasia getting the nod to play the lead role.

From the nation’s capital to a Georgia mountain carved with a Confederate memorial, church bells and hand bells served to answer Dr. King’s call from 50 years ago to “let freedom ring” for all people.

That symbolic sound could be heard Wednesday at more than 300 locations in nearly every state to commemorate King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the moment it was delivered, organizers said.

At the Lincoln Memorial, members of the King family tolled a bell at 3 p.m. that once hung at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birming­ham, Ala., before the church was bombed in 1963.

Across the city, the central bell tower at the National Cathedral played “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “We Shall Overcome,” and other songs at the site where King delivered his last Sunday sermon in 1968 before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

When the bells started playing, a group of women who gathered for shelter from the rain all stood up, and some hummed along. Carin Ruff, 48, of Washington, told The Associated Press that a tear came to her eye as she heard the bells and at the same time listened to President Barack Obama speaking from her smartphone.

Obama paid tribute to the marchers of 1963 and that era — the maids, laborers, students and more who came from ordinary ranks to engage “on the battlefield of justice” — and he implored Americans not to dismiss what they accomplished.

“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest — as some sometimes do — that little has changed, that dishonors the courage, the sacrifice, of those who paid the price to march in those years,” Obama said to a crowd that jammed around the Reflecting Pool, which stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the World War II Memorial.

“This march, and that speech, changed America,” former President Bill Clinton said Wednesday, remembering the impact on the world and himself as a young man. “They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions — including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas.”

“In truth, he helped to free all people,” former President Jimmy Carter said of King. Still, Carter listed a string of current events that he said would have spurred King to action in this day, including the proliferation of guns and stand-your-ground laws, a Supreme Court ruling striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act and high unemployment among Blacks.

Former President George W. Bush didn’t attend, a spokesman said, because he was recovering from a recent heart procedure. Bush said in a statement that Obama’s presidency reflects “the promise of America” and “will help us honor the man who inspired millions to redeem that promise.”

Patty Mason, 69, of Bethesda, Md., gazed up at the bell tower and remembered the March on Washington from 1963.

“I remember 50 years ago: the marching, the throngs of people, the speech, the energy,” said Mason, who was one of about two dozen people who gathered outside the cathedral, gazing up at the bell tower. “It was amazing, just amazing.”

At the same time, commemorations were taking place from New York City to the far reaches of Alaska, where participants rang cow bells and bear bells in Juneau.

The bells were answering King’s closing refrain from 1963. As he was wrapping up his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he quoted from the patriotic song, “My Country ‘tis of Thee” and implored his audience to “let freedom ring” from the hilltops and mountains of every state in the nation. He cited some by name.

“When we allow freedom to ring _ when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we are free at last,” King said in closing.

In New Orleans, Skip Alexander shared his prediction about how the nation will benefit from the lessons learned by those who attended the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Historic March on Washington with Fox 8 News: “Out of this will come many leaders. Out of this will come many whites and Blacks who will unite together.”

This article originally published in the September 02, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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