Today marks the 50th anniversary of 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a momentous occasion in the country’s struggle toward political equality among all of its citizens, regardless of their skin color.
An estimated 250,000 people took to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. that day to protest the rampant, legally condoned racial discrimination extant in many parts of the country. Speaking at the event were civil rights leaders of the time including A. Philip Randolph and John Lewis.
The march was also the setting for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
A number of Scotland County residents spoke to The Laurnburg Exchange about what the march meant then and its significance now 50 years later.
“It was just something to behold,” said Joyce McDow, a former county commissioner, who was a student at Fayetteville State University at the time of the march. “Everybody stopped to watch the television. It made a huge impression on me and I believe that it made a huge impression on the United States as well as the world. I believe that it put the civil rights movement front and center with the government and it instilled a sense of pride and urgency in the movement.”
Jan Schmidt,who lives in Laurinburg but is a native of Long Island, N.Y. and said that her experience of the civil rights movement was rather different than it would have been for a southerner.
“I had been brought up with people who always believed in integration and we went to integrated schools,” said Schmidt. “We were always impressed with the nonviolence of the movement compared to the violence of the status quo and the people who were in power.”
McDow said that one of the most striking elements of the March on Washington was the sense of unity across racial and cultural divides.
“There were singers, poets, people from all walks of life,” she said. “It was just impressive to look at that many people in one place or even be able to get that many people to come to one place at one time - that was very impressive, with everybody singing from the same page from the standpoint of supporting the same ideals for mankind.”
Several local youth ventured to Washington on Saturday to take part in commemorating the anniversary of the March on Washington.
“I’d never been to a march before and I wanted to see what it’s like and help make history,” said Lenwood Graham, a Scotland High School senior. “It was a lot of people. It made me feel excited to see so many people together for one event.”
Jasmine Perry, also a Scotland High senior, said that she drew inspiration from the young leaders and speakers behind the March on Washington.
“The March for Jobs and Freedom was to make a change and shake the foundations of the country,” she said. “The changes were made by young people, so now it’s our generation’s time to make a change, make history, and pass that on to people in the generations to come.”
Saturday’s turnout is estimated in the tens of thousands, with policies passed by North Carolina’s General Assembly one of the prominent topics identified as a civil rights concern. The state legislature’s recent cuts to education and unemployment spending have been called regressive by many inside the state and out of it.
“North Carolina was being beaten down for the laws that have been passed here,” Perry said. “I know people that are on unemployment so I can see how it’s affecting my community and the people around me. I can see how it’s going to affect my generation and the people who are coming up behind me if cuts are made to public education and Head Start programs. The children of the next generation are going to suffer.”
Some have raised concerns that the state has begun to reverse the progress made over the last 50 years, but the injustices of the 1960s were much clearer and more plain. Translating that period for young people, says NAACP youth advisor Loretta McNeil, can be somewhat difficult.
“We almost cannot understand that period; it was a period that people did not want to discuss,” McNeil said. “No one raised since then understands how you just let someone spit in your face, how you just let somebody hit you and call you every name that you know you’re not. But after a while you hear it so much that it becomes a common name. The sad part is you’ve done nothing but say that you want to eat at the counter.”
Reflecting on the march, McDow said that future activism and efforts to safeguard the common right to public education, civil liberty, and protection under the law would not be possible without the work - and sacrifices - of the early civil rights leaders.
“I think we are living a better life today because of the things that our people went through at the time,” she said. “I won’t say only our people - people on both sides were fighting for civil rights, but some harsh things did happen to African-Americans. “Today we are standing on the shoulders of those who paved the way, and many of them paved the way with their lives.”