Remembering August 28, 1963: A hot summer’s day, a defining moment

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My father organized the Wilson Branch of the NAACP in 1947 and began advocating for racial equality. Their efforts first involved teaching black citizens how to pass the Literacy Test. Voter registration efforts concentrated in Ward Three and, in 1953, Dr. G.K. Butterfield became the first African American elected to the Board of Aldermen. Four years later, district elections were replaced with at-large elections and he lost.

The NAACP continued its efforts by protesting the segregated stadium, lunch counters and movie theatres. They advocated that black women be allowed to work in textile jobs and at the telephone company. They were inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and NAACP President Roy Wilkins. But more than King and Wilkins, other notable civil rights leaders inspired them such as Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Walter Reuther, James Farmer, Whitney Young, Floyd McKissick, and my friend and colleague, Congressman John Lewis.

And so, it was only natural that my father was determined to participate in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The march demanded civil rights legislation ensuring integrated public accommodations and fairness in hiring; creation of a public works program for jobs, elimination of segregated schools, $2 minimum wage and self government for the District of Columbia.

My father insisted that his 16-year-old son travel with him to Washington on that hot day of August 28 – and I’m glad he did. We traveled by car, arriving around midnight. We lodged in a Northwest hotel and quickly arose the next morning and walked to the Lincoln Memorial. My first reaction was astonishment that white people were actively participating in the march!  I led many youth demonstrations in my community but never saw a white person do anything except jeer and criticize our efforts.

The heat began to rise as we walked closer to the site. Dad was inspired by the thousands of participants and remarked that he was glad that the leaders did not abandon the march as urged by President Kennedy.

We stood at the back edge of the reflecting pool for hours. Standing was difficult for dad who was 63 years old. (Yes, he was 47 when I was born). We endured the standing and witnessed speaker after speaker take to the podium including Floyd B. McKissick, a family friend who represented James Farmer who was in jail for civil disobedience. I recall Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez energizing the crowd with their song.

Finally, Martin Luther King, Jr. walked to the podium invoking a rousing ovation. King’s speech was captivating and so eloquent. When he finished, the diverse audience was so emotional. We left the mall and returned to North Carolina.

The March on Washington changed the national conversation about racial equality. It applied political pressure for President Kennedy and Congress to enact civil rights legislation. Regrettably, less than three months later, President Kennedy was assassinated and President Johnson continued the fight. And civil rights leaders continued their efforts in the South and finally, on July 2, 1964, the bill was passed. For the first time in America’s history, the law of the land ensured racial equality for all of its citizens.


More from The Hill:
♦ Rep. Hastings: The struggle continues for King's dream
♦ Rep. Meeks: Making the dream a reality
♦ Rep. Rangel: The dream lives on
♦ Rep. Clay: A memorial is not enough
♦ Rep. Clarke: Continuing to build the dream
♦ Rep. Conyers: Dr. King's dream of jobs, justice and peace
♦ Rep. Carson: A renewed call to positive action
♦ Rep. Bishop: Reflections on Dr. King's memorial
♦ Austin: Remembering the March for Jobs and Freedom


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