50th anniversary of March on Washington sparks civic dialogue
A discussion on the civil rights issues that fueled the historic 1963 March on Washington became a platform for open, candid talks on the progress and lack thereof made from protests decades before.
In the main branch of the Durham County Public Library approximately 40 people gathered to talk about the current state of civil rights issues in the shadow of the 50th anniversary of the Aug. 28 march.
Mandy Carter of the National Black Justice Coalition Bayard Rustin 2013 Commemoration Project and Barbara Lau of the Pauli Murray Project facilitated the discussion and set the stage for the dialogue.
“I’m really humbled today by the incredible history making that they (Pauli Murray and Bayard Rustin) were a part of,” said Carter. “Who would have thought 50 years ago that on that hot Wednesday that the possibility that we’d have who’s sitting in the White House right now? Today we want to engage you in a little civil dialogue.”
“This is for the people who spent time in Washington 50 years ago and the people who spent time in Raleigh three weeks ago,” Lau said. “This is about the idea of change and transition. The day before the march Washington was not the same as the day after. I think we’re still in that transition.
“While there is and was a tremendous amount of support for what happened in 1963, there were some people who were looking at the march with a different perspective,” continued Lau. “There were a lot of things going on behind the scenes that day.”
Three women among the crowd were part of the 1963 March of Washington.
Beverly McNeill is the daughter of Floyd McKissick Sr.’s sister and lived in Washington in 1963.
“It was just so incredible to see that many people,” she recalled. “The feeling that was there at the 2008 inauguration, it was the same kind of spirit. It was just an incredible experience.”
Marlene Mack, now in her 80s, was also part of the march. Mack succumbed to tears as she talked about her experience in 1963.
“I’m not an activist at all,” Mack began. “It’s a memory I will not forget.”
Mack said that she was a probation officer in New York at the time, living in Harlem, and was among those who volunteered to be plain-clothed among the crowd during the march.
“There was no different between north and south in many ways,” she said. “What struck me about the march was the diversity. I was in awe of the diversity of the crowd. The diversity, to this day, overwhelms me.
“As people were speaking, the people (in the crowd) were hugging and they were quiet and you could feel the love.”
Relating the 1963 march to recent changes in legislation, Mack broke down into tears as she said. “I see the pendulum going back and all I can think to myself is ‘not again, not again.’”
Excerpts were read from a “very confrontational” letter that Pauli Murray sent to A. Phillip Randolph critiquing the 1963 March on Washington and its lack of women and from a letter from A. Phillip Randolph to the press in support of Bayard Rustin, who was very active in the fight for civil rights and an openly gay black man.
The groups went to work comparing the civil rights work and triumphs of 1963 and 2013 and various comments could be heard coming from the tables.
“We have a national minimum wage but it has to go up,” said Wendy Michener in one group.
“People are classified. There are classes of people and that’s the problem,” Chris Cayer said in another group.
“Schools shouldn’t be a place where students are criminalized,” Erdem Narter could be heard saying in his group.
Collectively the groups echoed many of the same concerns and possible solutions to civil rights issues of today including reform to the criminal justice and prison systems, a path to citizenship for immigrants, withholding funding from states where discrimination exists, the redirecting of funds from war to housing and protecting the right to vote of all people.