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50 years later, D.C. march remembered

Chip Ellis
Charleston resident Frances Shearin was at the March on Washington 50 years ago. Here, she's holding the same purse and handkerchief that she had that day, when she was seven months pregnant.
Courtesy photo James Tolbert, of Charles Town, went to the March on Washington and then went on to become the president of the West Virginia NAACP. With the Supreme Court's recent decision on the Voting Rights Act, he sees America losing some of the progress it's made over the last 50 years.
Courtesy photo Tolbert still has the pennant that he carried 50 years ago at the March on Washington.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fifty years ago this week, 19-year-old Frances Shearin left her home on Longfellow Street in northwest Washington, D.C., seven months pregnant, and joined about 250,000 other people on the National Mall for the March on Washington.

"My husband was working and he was kind of reluctant to walk downtown, but I said, 'The doctors say I need to walk, good exercise,'" Shearin, who now lives on Charleston's West Side, said of that day.

Memories of the march are still fresh in her mind today.

"It was hot, oh it was hot. But it didn't matter because the men and women dressed up like they were going to church," Shearin said. "There was a certain stillness in that city that day. It was as if the rivers had stopped flowing and the wind was not blowing. None of that was going on.

"It was just a peacefulness, a tranquility of people coming together," she said.

"A whole lot of men with their children, fathers with their sons. The older men or the middle-aged men were dressed in suits and ties. It had to be 96, 97 degrees. To me it felt like 125 degrees."

Shearin sees the spirit of that day -- Aug. 28, 1963 -- and the messages imparted by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, showing up in modern America.

Last week a man sneaked into an elementary school in suburban Atlanta. He was dressed in all black and carrying an AK-47-style assault rifle with about 500 rounds of ammunition. He briefly exchanged fire with police, but no one, including the more than 800 students in the school, was hurt.

Most of the credit went to Antoinette Tuff, a 46-year-old school bookkeeper who talked the gunman into surrendering as she acted as intermediary between him and the police.

"It's going to be all right, sweetie," Tuff said to the gunman at one point, captured on the 911 call. "I just want you to know I love you."

The story resonated with Shearin.

"Three words, 'I love you.' She didn't see color. She saw a human being. She saw a child of God and she extended herself," Shearin said. "I love you. How often we don't say those words. And that's all Martin was trying to teach, was to love one another."

There has been undeniable progress made in the 50 years since King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, literacy tests and "whites only" facilities have been relegated to the past.

But West Virginians who were at the March on Washington 50 years ago, Shearin included, see King's dream as unfulfilled.

Black Americans are still overrepresented in unemployment numbers, poverty measures and the criminal justice system, and underrepresented in Ivy League classrooms and corporate boardrooms.

Similar issues today

In 1963, James Tolbert was 31 and working at the VA hospital in Martinsburg. He and a friend packed a couple of sandwiches and took the train from Harpers Ferry to Washington on the day of the march.

King talked that day about "the fierce urgency of now." "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," he said.

Just two years later, the civil rights movement achieved one of its biggest victories, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

Tolbert, who lives in Charles Town, didn't think we'd still be confronting similar topics.

"I never imagined that 50 years later I'd still be talking about it," Tolbert said of the march. "That it would take another 50 years and then some of the issues that we protested that day would still be here."

Earlier this summer, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key section of the Voting Rights Act, saying that it was no longer necessary.

Tolbert, who was the president of the West Virginia NAACP from 1986 to 2007, pointed to those state voting laws, among other things, as evidence that we still have a ways to go.

"It's not a pretty picture, every generation there's some other voter obstacle to jump over," he said. "It does make me wonder, you know at this age, whether our children and our grandchildren will see any more progress. It appears that folks in these state legislatures and also in the Congress want to slow things down."

North Carolina recently enacted one of the strictest voter laws in the nation. The law cuts down on early voting hours, ends same-day voter registration, ends a high school program that registered students to vote and requires a government-issued photo ID to vote, although student IDs and out-of-state driver's licenses will not be accepted.

The U.S. Department of Justice is suing to block a similar, less restrictive, law in Texas and is reportedly considering a challenge to the North Carolina law as well.

"We made strides in voting," Tolbert said. "At the time there were just a handful of blacks in Congress, practically no Hispanics, but at the same time, all of this voter suppression and challenges might roll back the progress."

Shearin, who works for the Charleston Job Corps Center and is also an ordained minister, remembers the march, officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as a push not just for racial equality, but for economic equality as well.

With measures of economic inequality soaring in America, she has a dim view of elected officials.

"You get a bunch of lackadaisical non-reading lawyers in Congress who sit there and pass down laws and do whatever they want to do to promote themselves," she said. "And we still got to fight for ours. We got to fight for Medicare, we got to fight for Social Security -- a system we paid into."

'Roll up our sleeves'

Rev. Ron English moved to Charleston in 1972 to be the pastor at the First Baptist Church. Before that he had been an associate minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, working under that church's two co-pastors -- Martin Luther King Jr. and Sr.

Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged English to go into the seminary, and English later gave the prayer at King's funeral in 1968.

In 1963, English was a 19-year-old student at Morehouse College when he and a friend drove from Atlanta to Washington for the march.

On the drive to Washington they passed through Lynchburg, Va., where, right in the middle of town, they saw a hanging noose.

English said that the march and King's speech need to be remembered in the context of that spring's Birmingham Campaign, in which nonviolent protesters, including children, were met with increasingly violent resistance.

"When you look at the footage of what happened with (Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene) "Bull" Connor and the billy clubs and dogs, you will see more children and more youth in that footage than any other footage," English said.

That sort of open, virulent racism is mostly a thing of the past, but King's message is still needed for race relations in America today, English said.

"Part of his moral leadership as expressed in that speech is what we need now in terms of how we need nonviolent communication to become a more civil society," English said. "The reality of race is something that has been covered over until it emerges in a Trayvon Martin case.

"We still have not dealt with the reality of race, so the dialogue kind of continues by the tragic events that have forced us to look at that again."

Rev. Matthew Watts, pastor at the Grace Bible Church in Charleston and a community leader on the West Side, was only 7 in 1963, but he remembers watching King's speech on television in his living room in Mount Hope.

Watts said that despite the progress made in dismantling legally-sanctioned segregation, King might be disappointed if he saw the state of America today.

"I don't think he would envision that more than 70 percent of black children would be born out of wedlock, I don't think that he could imagine that we would have the mass incarceration of blacks that exists today and I don't think he would imagine that unemployment for blacks would be higher today," Watts said.

"It's not so much the memory of the dream or remembering the speech, but it's remembering what it was that he went to Washington to try to do," he said.

"If we want to honor Martin Luther King's legacy and see the dream realized, it's time to roll up our sleeves."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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