Triangle residents remember the original March on Washington
Aug. 24, 2013 @ 10:46 PM

Howard Clement III remembers standing a few rows back from the platform where Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 would tell thousands that he had a dream.

Clement had never seen so many people in his life that day on the National Mall. He eased through the mass of people toward the stage, where he could see speakers’ faces up close and brush shoulders with civil rights pioneers such as Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins.

“It was a very peaceful day,” Clement said. “Dr. King was at his best. … It was one of the most memorable and inspiring occasions of my life.”

Clemen, now 79, has served as a Durham city councilman for 30 years. He and others from the Triangle are recalling stories of their personal civil rights struggles and triumphs as the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington Aug. 28.

More than 100 Durham residents and others from around the region left on a bus from the Lakewood Shopping Center Saturday after midnight, just to make it to D.C. in time to march again and retrace their historic steps, or the steps of their fathers and mothers.

Phyllis Coley with Spectacular Magazine helped organize the anniversary trip, and she said Triangle activists would march from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial. She said the original “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” still holds significance today because people are fight for jobs and voting rights in North Carolina.

“We’re marching for those same things,” Coley said. “It’s important that we have a large delegation going from North Carolina.”

But in Clement’s eyes, no other march can come close to what he experienced 50 years ago.

At Howard University, Clement finished his undergrad degree in 1955 and then attended law school there. He was part of the same fraternity as Martin Luther King Jr., Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest black fraternity in America, and on occasion had the chance to meet the man himself when King would visit the fraternity house.

Clement said he was only in his twenties when King personally invited him to a march in Selma, Ala. He described King as loving, a well-respected man who tried to stay low-key, but “he was in such demand, it was just difficult for him to be what he wasn’t.”

It was 1961 when Clement arrived in Durham, and two years later he would join fellow Durhamites who would leave the morning of Aug. 28 on five buses. They would later arrive in D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial on a beautiful day.

“It was an exciting moment,” Clement said. “My family didn’t want me to go because of the fear of the unknown.”


Looking toward the past


Veronica Scott from Raleigh said her father marched in the original. She treasures a photo of him taken in 1963, the morning of the march, as he played checkers in the dark with new friends. The late Abe Scott Jr. was 42 at the time, and his family was used to standing up for civil rights. Veronica’s sister participated in the downtown Raleigh Woolworth’s sit-ins and Veronica, years later, would experience tensions at UNC-Charlotte, where other students threw rocks at her and called her racial epithets.

“It makes me proud as an African American to have this opportunity to go there and pay homage to those that paved the path for me and others like me,” Veronica said.

Haywood Holderness, pastor emeritus of Westminster Presbyterian Church, said he experienced a different side of the march in 1963 - He was in the Army, a 23-year-old private first class who was ordered to keep the peace if the nonviolent demonstrations turned into riots. He and his soldiers traveled from Fort Meade in Maryland to D.C. in uniform, with big trucks and their unloaded rifles.

He said he stood on the far end of the Mall in the shade and watched as people stuck flowers down their rifle barrels.

“We were convinced by our commanding officers that this was a dangerous assignment,” Holderness said, but the crowds were anything but dangerous. “...They listened; they laughed.”

Benjamin Reese, vice president of the Duke Office for Institutional Equity, said his life’s work led him to Durham, where he promotes diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity at the university. He was a high school student living in New York City in 1963, at a time when he couldn’t go into certain restaurants and stayed away from certain neighborhoods just because of the color of his skin.

“Literally every moment that I wasn’t in school, I was on some picket line, some demonstration, and issues of race and equality just pervaded my life during those years, as it does now,” Reese said.

He attended this year’s march in D.C. with his family. This also is a special year for Duke, he said, because in 1963, the first five black undergraduates enrolled at the university. They’ve spent much of this year celebrating that groundbreaking integration.

Tammie Harris of Durham is attending the 50th anniversary march to remember her father and represent her children and grandchildren. Her father, Melvin Willis, was one of seven black students involved in the 1957 Royal Ice Cream Parlor sit-in in Durham. They were arrested after trying to order ice cream in the segregated establishment. 

“We still need to recognize the people who paved the way for us, and he did,” Harris said.

She is his adopted child, and Melvin worked in the Durham American Tobacco factory and her mother was one of the first black women to work in an integrated Chapel Hill business, a hair salon.

Now, at 53, “I’m sort of taking his place,” she said. “That’s how I feel in the crowd.... I am a product of a man who stood for justice and peace.”


Laying the groundwork in Durham


N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. keeps a few framed photographs of his father on the wall of his law office along North Mangum Street.

The framed Newsweek cover features the face of his father, civil rights leader and lawyer Floyd B. McKissick, and other civil rights greats such as Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, Stokely Carmichael and Whitney Young. Their faces all surround the title, “Which Way for the Negro Now?”

The other photograph, of which McKissick Jr. has since made multiple copies, is of Martin Luther King Jr. and his father holding hands in solidarity at the front of the 1963 March on Washington.

His father, with help from Thurgood Marshall, was the first black man to go to UNC Law School after successfully winning the case of Carmichael v. McKissick. He was a chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality and also fought many civil rights cases in court.

But McKissick Jr. remembers their Durham home, a 5-bedroom historic haunt on North Roxboro Street, as a haven for civil rights activism. He met Malcolm X and MLK as a young boy, and civil rights leaders became his extended family.

People would come and go, and they would make picket signs, walk the picket lines, register people to vote and organize rallies.

His father “ended up with this amazing network of contacts and people that you would always come in contact with, that you really didn’t always know their role and prominence. You knew that they were active but you took it all for granted,” McKissick Jr. said.

While his father was representing legal advancements for African Americans, his son was registering people to vote around the neighborhood and taking on the role as the only black student in his sixth grade class at North Durham Elementary as integration took hold.

“You were basically exposed to the front line of discrimination,” McKissick Jr. said, “and when I say that, the teachers had never taught black students. They didn’t believe black students had the capacity to compete intellectually.”

His mother was part of the group that worked to integrate Durham public schools. His older sister faced mobs when she tried to enter her school; They would hold the door from the outside so she couldn’t enter.

But he was living in a multiracial environment at home, one of peace and justice, while the world outside was racist. His father taught him “to be as independent as one can be, and to be a voice for those who may not have a voice,” McKissick Jr. said.

McKissick Jr. didn’t attend the March on Washington in 1963 with his father because he was too young and the final plans for the march advised parents not to bring children younger than 14 in case of violent outbreaks.

But this week, he’ll attend a White House reception and hear President Obama speak at the Lincoln Memorial during the anniversary.

“It’s rather amazing - What you begin to realize is how quickly 50 years can pass,” McKissick Jr. said. “I’m part of the last generation in America that will remember segregation and apartheid as a part of our culture. And that’s a good thing in many respects, but the unfortunate part is that people who have come along since me do not realize the obstacles we’ve all overcome.”

During King’s speech that beautiful day in 1963, King said to McKissick’s father and the mass of thousands, “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

“1963 is not an end but a beginning.”