By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The effort to bring down Jim Crow segregation had begun, as a few examples of compliance with the Brown Decision declaring separate but equal schools illegal.
The American workplaces were mostly white and male.
Voting by African-Americans in federal, state, and local elections was restricted due to the poll tax or the threat of violence.
Blacks, “deemed invaders,” could not move into predominately white neighborhoods without being harassed or being the target of violence.
Standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C., these disparities were vocalized by a number of speakers on a hot August 28, 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech has survived 60 years in the collective American memory.
King, a Baptist preacher, couldn’t stick with his script when the spirit of the crowd moved within him. He departed from his planned comments, shifting like a jazz musician improvising well-practiced riffs, into lines from a sermon he’d delivered on previous occasions.
One line in particular, where King foresaw a day when his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” has become one of the most famous and controversially quoted passages in the history of American oratory.
Sixty years later – 2023 – a coalition of Black civil rights groups led by Dr. King’s offspring, Martin Luther King, III; King’s wife, Andrea Waters King; their daughter, Yolanda Renee King; the Drum Major Institute; and the National Action Network (NAN), are in the forefront of the 60th Anniversary of 1963 event under the theme: “It’s Not a Commemoration, It’s A Continuation! We March On!”
The 60th anniversary arrives at a point in American history when African-Americans, along with poor whites, gays, women, Hispanics, and Native Americans are fighting against efforts to marginalize them economically and politically, according to organizers of the 60th Anniversary event.
Blacks are still among the poorest Americans. The nation’s public schools appear as segregated as they did in 1963.
A growing number of states led by the Republicans are devising ways to deter and reduce the number of African-American voters.
The same states, notably Florida, are outlawing or deterring the teaching of Black history in public schools and mentioning the most abusive practices of slavery or Jim Crow.
Tools, such as affirmative action, that have been used to increase Black employment and college enrollment are being rolled back by the federal courts and the Republican-controlled legislatures.
Black people walking through or recreating near all-white neighborhoods are increasingly once again subject to being harassed or attacked in some places in America.
Nathan Richardson of Suffolk does a re-enactment of Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent pre-Jim Crow civil rights abolitionists and activists. Richardson appears in costume and delivers Douglass’ messages around the country.
He has not attended any of the anniversaries of the 1963 March. He did attend the Million Man March that came later in the 1990s.
Richardson said this year’s march should remind people today why the 1963 and subsequent events were held.
“A march is a prayer in motion,” he said.
“Some of us are well aware of ‘the fierce urgency of now.’ Some of us do not have a clue,” he said.
“Back then, it was jobs and Jim Crow. Today, Jim Crow has been discarded for the dog whistles. Jim Crow (White Supremacist), just as he did 160 years ago, is openly advocating seceding from the American Constitution.”
He continued, “As for jobs, we have the lowest unemployment rate since the industrial revolution. Everyone in America (especially Blacks are far too wealthy and content) to be concerned about the serious threat to their rights.”
“Even moderate wealth creates a dangerous level of apathy,” he said.
“In the words of Frederick Douglass, ‘The American people are more disposed to be generous rather than just. Is it jewelry or justice?”
The march represented a coalition of the “Big Six” civil rights organizations and their leaders: James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE; John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC; Asa Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP; Whitney Young Jr. of the National Urban League; and King, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC.
Each of the Big Six leaders spoke except Farmer, who was in a Louisiana jail at the time, having been arrested for “disturbing the peace” as he organized protests in the town of Plaquemine. Floyd McKissick, a North Carolina-based civil rights activist, lawyer, preacher, and Black-Power advocate, read Farmer’s speech to the marchers.
Other speakers included labor leader Walther Reuther and religious leaders representing Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faith traditions. Entertainer Josephine Baker, who recognized Rosa Parks among the “Negro Woman Fighters for Freedom,” was the only female speaker.
The 1963 march was followed by anniversary marches in 1983, 1988, 1993, and 2003.
In 1988 Angie Gregory of Chesapeake, her then teenage daughter Nikki and other friends boarded a bus from Virginia Beach to attend the 25th anniversary of the 1963 March.
Gregory said she recalls a reporter from the Journal and Guide as well as a reporter from the local daily newspaper shadowing her as she retraced the steps of the one-mile march in the National Mall along the reflective pool to the steps of the Washington Monument. Her story appeared in the local newspaper.
She recalls hearing Dr. King’s disciples, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was running for President, give speeches on the continued fight for civil rights.
Gregory said the 1963 and following anniversary marches were used to highlight the Black community’s demands for voting, social and economic rights.
But, like Richardson, she said that Black people “have gotten so complacent, despite the challenges to civil rights today, we need to turn the light bulb on again and stand up to what is going on.”
She said progress has been made, but with Conservative White Republicans’ attack on the civil rights of Blacks, the poor, Gays, and women’s reproductive rights, “did we do it all in vain?”
“They are trying to pull the rug of economic and political rights out from under us,” said Gregory. “Many of us have lost the concept of fighting for our freedom. We have forgotten that despite … we are continually fighting to preserve that and secure more.
They are trying to send us back to 1963.”
She was Sharon Riddick in 1983 when the 20th anniversary of March took place.
Today, Sharon Hoggard is retired after working in various avenues of media for three decades.
In 1983, she was a reporter for the Journal and Guide. She recalls she was in one of a caravan of buses from Hampton Roads which descended on Washington D.C. that hot late August.
“It was the largest event I had ever covered as a reporter,” she recalled. “Before I had covered large jazz concerts or conferences. There were over 50,000 people there.”
Hoggard said she ran across a number of “interesting people and stories.”
“We walked the mall along the reflecting pool and there were people from all over,” she said. “There were all kinds of vendors.”
Hoggard said she recalled some of the more noted speakers such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Also, Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz gave a fiery operatory along with John Lewis and other civil rights leaders.
“The event allowed me to understand the Civil Rights Movement and what it meant to Black people more,” she said.
Hoggard said, “Democracy is under threat; a lot of people do not believe that slavery was a big deal.”
“Like 1963, people are still willing to stand in the door to block Black progress,” she said. “They believe that if African-Americans get something, it means we are taking something away from them. I believe this country would be 200 years ahead of other nations if it had not spent so much time trying to keep us down … segregation, oppression, and discrimination. Think of all the talent and money that has been wasted.”