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Locals prepare for commemoration of March on Washington

19th August 2013   ·   0 Comments

Just days before the commemoration of the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will kick off its 55th anniversary celebration with a conference in the nation’s capitol. New Orleanians and people from across the state of Louisiana will be in that number with regional SCLC organizers signing up participants for an old-fashioned caravan to Washington, DC from Shreveport, Slidell and New Orleans.

While the actual March on Washington took place on August 28, 1963, many in the nation will be in DC on Saturday, August 24, to mark that momentous day five decades ago when the dream of a better, more inclusive nation was heard around the world.

The Louisiana/Southern Christian Leadership Confer-ence (SCLC) Connection is a collaboration of the National SCLC, Louisiana SCLC Chapters, Louisiana elected officials and legislators, ministers and pastors, community-based organizations, and many other national and state organizations who are involved in the struggles for justice, inclusion and equality. The Louisi­ana/SCLC Connection is led by State Representative and National SCLC Executive Officer, Rep. Randal Gaines, along with other legislators of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, the leaders of the La. SCLC chapters, pastors and community leaders.

The La./SCLC Connection will host a Legislative Townhall with La. legislators titled “The State of African Americans in Louisiana …50 years Later.” There will be a Panel Discussion titled “Global Economic Development: Doing Business in Africa” with business leaders, investors and others from around the state and country to discuss economic opportunities and jobs on an international basis as part of the SCLC’s SAP Initiative-Stand Against Poverty. There will also be a “Louisiana Dine-Around” after the Redeem the Dream March. For more information, visit www.nationalsclc.org.

Among those coordinating and participating in the 50th anniversary observance of the Historic March on Washington are the National Action Network, National Urban League and a host of civil rights veterans and luminaries who supported the goals and aims of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Rev. Norwood Thompson, president of the New Orleans affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, remembers well the March on Washington. Although he did not make it to DC for the 1963 march, many of his contemporaries did. Thompson was among the New Orleans residents and civil rights leaders who welcomed local civil rights legends like the Rev. Samson “Skip” Alexander and the Rev. (Simmie Lee) Harvey back home after the historic civil rights gathering.

“I wasn’t there when Dr. King gave his impassioned ‘I Have A Dream’ speech — I wasn’t there but I went to the celebration afterwards (in New Orleans),” Rev. Thompson told The Louisiana Weekly.

Despite missing the big day in D.C., Rev. Thompson has continued to work to make Dr. King’s dream of expanding opportunities for people of color in the United States a reality.

“I’ve met with everybody on Dr. King’s staff and worked with Mrs. King in getting the national holdall but never met Dr. King.”

Thompson says that among those in D.C. for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will be the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded in New Orleans and was once led by Dr. King. The SCLC will celebrate its 55th anniversary in Washington, D.C. August 23-26 and a host of groups that include the National Action Network will commemorate the Historic March on Washington with a Redeem the Dream March on Saturday, August 24.

Thompson said the Rev. Bernice King has sent out a call for people of good will to come together on Wednesday, August 28, and ring bells around the world in commemoration of her father’s call to “let freedom ring.” Thompson plans to partner with Dillard University’s chaplain and others to organize a similar commemoration of the March on Washington in New Orleans August 28.

Rev. Thompson told The Louisiana Weekly that the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington gives Black America an opportunity to pause and reflect on the progress made over the past five decades and the challenges that lie ahead.

“There are still a lot of changes that need to be made,” Thompson said. Thompson said the Obama administration and the Black community need to summon all of their resources to find a way to expand economic opportunities for people of color and provide a safety net for young Black men after they leave prison.

“We have got to find a way to reach out to our young people,” Thompson said. “We got so many issues in New Orleans — it looks like we’ve made a couple of steps forward but have taken three or four steps backward.”

Thompson says the Black community also needs to empathize with those in the community who are less fortunate. “We don’t feel each other’s pain — we’re got to feel the hurt that others go through and stop saying, ‘I got mine, you get yours.’ That’s unacceptable. We have to start feeling others’ pain.”

Jerome Smith, a New Orleans-born Freedom Rider and founder and executive director of the youth empowerment group Tambourine & Fan, attended the 1963 March on Washington along with a group of young people and talks about it like the watershed moment in U.S. history took place last week.

“One of the things that the March did that is not really talked about publicly is begin to draw Malcolm X and Martin Luther King closer to one another,” Smith told The Louisiana Weekly. “Malcolm was supposed to come down to Atlanta and establish an ongoing discussion with Dr. King. There was going to be a serious discussion in terms of the hard and sort of it.”

Smith remembers 1963 as a different time which found Black people with different obstacles and a different set of survival skills to overcome the obstacles they faced daily.

“During that time we were not really involved in wholesale killings of each other,” Smith explained. “We had a kind of collective spirituality and a sense of purpose that gave us an appreciation for one other…

“One of the things I’ve been thinking about is whether or not we would be able to carry that momentum, not just the emotional momentum of the movement but the electric, intellectual acceptance of a mandate going forward,” Smith added.

To illustrate his point, Smith recalled a comment by Dr. King in Montgomery, Ala., before the Freedom Rides began about the importance of maintaining ‘a historical linkage as we make footsteps in moments.’ We were making these footprints clean across the country, more specifically across the South, and Doc wanted to make sure that we understood the importance of maintaining that linkage going forward. That’s been our present-day failure. Not only have we failed to maintain that linkage in physical confrontations but we have lost a lot of the spirituality of our existence.”

As an example, Smith pointed to the case of the 14-year-old, Marshall Coulter, who was shot in the head by Marigny resident Merritt Landry on July 26. Smith says he and some of his friends also jumped into a white man’s yard to retrieve “chiny balls” from a tree in the man’s yard. The boys were chased away by the man with a stick rather than shot in the head.

Smith says there has been a noticeable lack of concern for Marshall Coulter from all segments of the community. “There’s no collective concern about the boy,” Smith told the Weekly. “The whole spiritual/church community has not sent a card to the boy’s house and said ‘You are not a throwaway. We fall down but get up again.’ Where are those voices? We have lost that integrity of spiritualization that existed during the times of the March on Washington. There’s no excuse for that. That’s not on white folks, that’s on us. How can we throw this child away when America made him go over that fence to take care of himself? What put him there? What put him there is the same indifference that was there before he was shot in the head. No white or Black church has sent him a card to let him know he is not a throwaway and wish him the best.

“We can deal with the legal thing,” Smith continued. “We have been there before in terms of new-day lynchings. …What happened to that boy is no different than what happened to Emmett Till. America has always given whites permission to harm us. What’s more devastating to me is that we don’t care about the child… At the point that the boy was injured, Black folks should have put a wagon around him spiritually so that he would at least know that his people care about him. Some might say that if the Republicans would support the President maybe the boy’s parents would have a job and he wouldn’t have to be in that yard stealing. The reason why the President couldn’t get the jobs is because we didn’t take the intellectual determination that King was speaking about and vote when the President first got into office. Our failure and our apathy are indirectly responsible for the child getting hurt because we didn’t do everything we could to make a difference. We failed to maintain the spiritual integrity of the 1963 March on Washington.”

Smith said he will determine this week whether it is feasible to bring a small group of Tambourine & Fan youth to the 50th anniversary March on Washington commemoration.

While Jerome Smith is proud of the many local youth and leaders who took to the streets to fight for freedom in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, he agreed that Mississippi has done a much better job of preserving its legacy of civil rights struggle and activism.

“I think because so much was anchored there and the publicity was heavily concentrated during a short time period when you had all of those high-profile murders happen right behind each other,” Smith told The Louisiana Weekly. “Then you had the Freedom Riders. But what’s hardly ever mentioned is that we trained most of the Freedom Riders at Rev. (A.L.) Davis’ (New Orleans) church.

“Mississippi had the national media focused on it as Fannie Lou Hamer fought for political representation, Freedom Summer, the murder of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, the assassination of Medgar Evers and the violent attacks on Freedom Riders from all over the country, including myself and constant acts of domestic terrorism. That was like a pressure cooker.

“Outside of that, a lot who were residents of Mississippi still live there and that movement touched them,” Smith continued.

Smith said Tambourine & Fan’s youths were recently taken aback by the lack of respect for and appreciation of those who paved the way for greater opportunities for today’s Blacks. While that point was recently driven home by a streetcar operator who said that A. Phillip Randolph, for whom the Regional Transit Authority’s main building is named, is “just another name,” he added that one can witness that kind of disconnect, lack of commitment and apathy among Black professionals and elected officials every day throughout New Orleans.

“How many Black lawyers could step into the shoes of Lolis Elie and A.P. Tureaud or any of the lawyers that were out there advocating on our behalf and not just doing business,” Smith told The Louisiana Weekly? “Who do we have that has come through the pipeline, that has been about community service, that has been about the elevation of the people that we can bring to the City Council? We don’t have the kinds of voices that bring endearment on the streets. We don’t find that anymore.

“Like Dr. King said, if we couldn’t maintain that historical linkage to the moment as it relates to our young, we are going to lose,” Smith added. “And that’s what we’re doing now, witnessing a loss.”

Smith said Tambourine & Fan will soon hold an event to honor the legacy of those who launched the sit-in demonstrations on Canal Street in New Orleans.

Speaking before an audience gathered at the Carrollton Branch of the New Orleans Public Library three years ago, the Rev. Samson “Skip” Alexander gave those in attendance a bird’s-eye view of the Civil Rights Movement and its many challenges and triumphs. The lecture was reported on by the Louisiana Justice Institute.

“You have to know your history,” Alexander said in the lecture titled “Eyewitness to History.” After sharing the story of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of Black teenagers framed and convicted for the rape of two white women in Alabama, Alexander said, “Things like that were not listed in the Times-Pick-On-You.”

He said that under segregation, Black New Orleanians suffered indignities and faced harsh conditions but owned more businesses then and in many ways had more economic opportunities. “In segregation, we didn’t know anything else,” Alexander explained. “And we got along quite well.”

Rev. Alexander was one of the organizers of the Memphis Sanitation Strike, and worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a number of civil rights campaigns “We lived in struggle, but kept our eyes on the prize,” he said, describing his time organizing for civil rights. “No one gave us freedom. We earned our place.”

“We have made some progress but we still have a lot of work to go,” Rev. Thompson said Wednesday. “But hopefully within our lifetime we will get to the promised land.”

This article originally published in the August 19, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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