Reflections on the 'Dream': 50 years later, the march lives on but dream remains elusive

News-DemocratAugust 24, 2013 

East St. Louis resident Reginald Petty shares his memories of the March on Washington.


“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”

-- The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963.

By August 1963, Reginald Petty had been arrested about 35 times in and around Jackson, Miss., for civil disobedience to obtain what he said should have been his God-given constitutional rights.

It also happened here.

He remembers going to Cahokia, being confronted by the police and asked why he was there.

"They took me to the police station. When they found out I was an educated man, they let me go. But, to have to go through that when you had not done anything but come to the town was ridiculous. I hadn't done anything, but I was out there. This was the way it was across the country."

Petty is now 77 and lives in East St. Louis. He was there 50 years ago on Aug. 28, 1963, when 250,000 people crowded in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to hear the speeches that would propel the civil rights movement. He was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and said there were a lot of young people in the crowd, which was about 20 percent white.

"It was very warm outside and people stood shoulder-to-shoulder everywhere," he said.

White people were afraid there would be mass violence. No one, not even President John F. Kennedy, wanted the march to happen: "But, eventually he came out in support of it because he knew he could not convince black leaders to call it off."

"We had no rights that white people had to respect. And so, people were angry, but not violent. It was a peaceful atmosphere. We wanted to make a statement that it was time for a change. And the big crowd that gathered on the mall that day showed that we were unified in our quest for equality."

He said the "I Have a Dream" speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was stirring and what most people associate with that day, but the meaning of the day was much more.

"The whole thing was A. Phillip Randolph's idea and he was inviting others to participate. King was one of those he invited. I was working with Stokely (Carmichael), who was then the president of SNCC," Petty said.

The crowd seemed to be most focused on Randolph Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, and others speaking about jobs and freedom, Petty said. Randolph led a pledge in which the crowd promised to continue to work to end racism and economic segregation.

"Wilkins' message was more of an economic development message. We had to work ourselves and pick ourselves up by our boot strap. He also talked about the importance of going out to vote and getting other blacks to vote. His speech was kind of dull, but pointed. Some others were technical -- their theme was 'Here's what you need to do.'"

The calls were for a $2 minimum wage, decent housing for every American and a federal program that would train and find work for all unemployed people at wages that would allow them to take care of their families. The marchers wanted more teeth in the Fair Labor Standards Act to include farm workers, domestic servants and others. And they wanted meaningful civil rights legislation, an end to school segregation, a federal law to prevent discrimination in public or private hiring and voting rights for blacks.

Petty remembers everything being focused on working to make the necessary reforms happen for blacks. He said there was a distinct difference between those who had been working on the front lines to obtain equal rights for black people and those who had not.

"We were recruiting people and telling them what their responsibilities were once they returned home," Petty said. "It was like, 'You're hearing this talk now. What are you going to do when you get back?'"

The tone was upbeat.

"They were really feeling that some changes were underway. The speeches were pretty optimistic. I think people were feeling all we had to do was get back home and do the work we were told by the speakers that had to be done."

"But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

So now it's 150 years.

Petty looks out and sees that young people don't understand the price so many paid to gain the right to live where they could afford, to go to school where they chose, to eat in restaurants and be served like others, to work and achieve as they are able.

He said blacks are still being denied access to full voting rights, citing hanging chads in Florida and voter ID cards in some states. He said New York City police are fighting to keep the ability to stop and frisk a disproportionate number of black and Latino males without probable cause. And he said blacks still don't trust the justice system that sends blacks to prison for 20 percent longer than whites convicted of the same crimes.

And Petty said if a black judge were to be charged with heroin and weapons offenses as was former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook, there would have been a quick trip to jail, not rehab.

"Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. "

Poet and professor Eugene Redmond, 75, of Fairview Heights, was also there. He traveled from a community where he said a black could not be caught north of State Street after dark.

"It was the single most important event of that period -- in my generation," he said. "I came from East St. Louis with several others. People went by horse and carriage, motorcycle, trains and airplanes. We got there anyway we could."

He said people brought musical instruments and box lunches.

"You could walk the mall and see clusters of people sitting with their legs crossed reading Bibles or singing spirituals and freedom songs, playing the blues, chewing tobacco or dipping snuff. There were students, sorority sisters and fraternity brothers in the crowd. Entire church congregations were there," he said.

Redmond's thoughts were heavy because the night before the March on Washington, W.E.B. DuBois had died. DuBois was the godfather of the civil rights movement, a founder of the NAACP, a revolutionary scholar and intellectual and a hero to the young Redmond, who would become a major figure in the Black Arts Movement.

He saw other heroes and "she-roes" at the march, including author James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Mahalia Jackson.

"John Lewis, who is now a congressman from Atlanta, was the youngest speaker there. He was instrumental in the marches on Selma. He was beaten almost to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge," Redmond said.

"Bloody Sunday" on March 7, 1965, was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement and sprang from the activism advocated at the March on Washington. About 600 people headed out of Selma, Ala., on U.S. 80 with the intent to lobby for voting rights at the state capitol. After six blocks they were stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police with billy clubs and tear gas. Marchers were forced back.

Two days later King led a second, symbolic march.

Then on March 21, protected by a federal judge's order, 3,200 people left Selma for a third march. By the time they arrived in Montgomery, the number of marchers had grown to 25,000. Less than five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Redmond said he sees the fight in America today as the same fight from 1963. It is about jobs, justice and freedom.

"People don't get better because they have more privileges or because life is more motorized or technologized. Black men are still incarcerated at a higher rate and for longer periods than their white counterparts for similar offenses. The unemployment rate is still higher for African-Americans than other races. We don't own businesses in our neighborhoods. Our educational systems are flawed and we're still fighting for voting rights," he said.

And he said the black middle class is no more.

"Black garbage workers, school teachers, bank tellers, postal workers, chauffeurs and butlers were the black middle class. Now, that is not the same. They've moved up to high tech. The original black middle class was destroyed. While white America has evolved, blacks have devolved," Redmond said.

"It's this way because black people have been able to advance in spite of racism, but because of racism, some people work at extrapolating their blackness to fit in with white America," he said. "They tone down what they feel are black cultural features to fit in and keep rising in America."

There have been advances.

"In 1963, I didn't personally know a black engineer. Today, I know hundreds of engineers and architects, Ph.D.'s. I have two nephews and a niece who are engineers. Janfrey Preston, one of my dear friends, designed six schools in East St. Louis."

People like Ben Carson, the noted pediatric neurosurgeon who grew up in poverty, have demonstrated black excellence in the sciences and other professions.

"But we still have a ways to go in terms of pay for black people as well as opportunities to be managers, newspaper publishers, owners of radio and television stations, large grocery chains, stores, and more.

"We now even have a black president, but even Oprah has experienced discrimination. She was not allowed to buy a $38,000 purse.

"In my generation, there were thousands of Negroes who had 'first' in front of their names. First Negro to do this or that. First Negro bank teller, first Negro bus driver, first Negro detective, first Negro head nurse or surgeon or something. We use to call the operator a lot to hear a Negro woman's voice when the first one was hired," Redmond said. "And when Max Robinson got on TV (as the first black network news anchor), everybody ran to a neighbor's house to see a Negro man on TV. We didn't have Thurgood Marshall, Johnnie Cochran or black mayors. Now, people don't even blink when a black is hired here and there."

There have been regressions.

"In many ways, the newer generation is lulled to sleep by drugs, music, rap music with vulgar, sex-hating masochistic, sexual vagrancy, fashion, drinking, piercing the body, men plaiting the hair, designs. That takes them out. You get removed from your cultural roots and you give more money to the people who already have the money," Redmond said. "The idea of doing for 'self' is where we have regressed."

He said victims of racism become complicit in their own undoing.

"How do the drugs, guns, liquor or other illicit contraband get to our neighborhoods? This shows how racism can affect the victims of it. The people who are funneling in illicit things are neither the victims nor perpetrators. Because when a black kills another black, whatever agent or tool is used did not come in with the perpetrator," he said.

He said blacks have failed to vote enough. They have failed to take full advantage of educational opportunities.

He said A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, March organizer Bayard Rustin, King and others are "agonizing in their graves -- turning, turning and burning in their graves to see how we have come to such a low and lonely place," Redmond said.

"Look at the legacy that has been dropped on blacks and whites -- brothers killing brothers. It's like war on your own blood. If you hate anybody, you hate yourself."

He said the country is in the middle of a crisis and overarching it is society's low respect for black humanity.

"You can punch in family, voting, drugs, incarceration, or wherever you want to go. They show whites making love and say we (blacks) fornicate. That is animalistic. Black humanity is threatened," he said.

So where to go?

"Jobs afford you freedom. Then you need justice to exact the freedom," Redmond said. "The mission is still jobs, justice and freedom."

"We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

Dick Gregory said the 1963 march was festive, but hundreds of thousands of black people in one place made even JFK nervous. He had seven divisions of troops standing by.

"To many white folks, including the president, it was horrific and they had lots of fear in them because white folk don't know us. They know us through other rhythms. White folks have had 300 years of white privilege. That's why they won't tolerate what we tolerate. We keep underestimating that there's a difference when you have privilege. They think through their eyes. If they were us, they would burn it down," Gregory said.

Gregory is a St. Louis native, comedian, health guru and civil rights activist. He was with renowned choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham when she fasted at her home in East St. Louis to protest democracy's loss in Haiti.

He said he was awed by the crowd 50 years ago.

"When you looked out at the crowd, you saw 250,000 Negroes -- more people than lived in Washington, D.C.," he said, and it started a drum beat. "It was a rhythm that went around the country. It was an eloquent, beautiful piece of human dignity. We left the next day feeling good."

He said the day and the people there set major changes in motion. He said by the time King was assassinated, he was the most hated man on the planet. Now, he is one of the most beloved.

"White folk were looking at hoses and dogs put on us. But, white folks also got to see how many decent white folks there were who were willing to die with us," he said.

He said the past echoes, sometimes with irony. The "stand your ground" laws in 36 states give a person the right to shoot another in self-defense if he feels his life is threatened, which allowed George Zimmerman to kill Trayvon Martin.

"We stood our ground with no guns. White people were shooting at us and meant to kill us because we stood up for our humanness. We said, 'I want dignity and I want to be treated like a human being,'" Gregory said.

When the marchers left Washington, Gregory said it was icing on the cake to be able to spread the message to people who didn't come or who couldn't come to the march. He said advances started, but there is still plenty of work to be done.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Martin Luther King III was one of the four little children of whom his father spoke on Aug. 28, 1963.

"While we have made some strides, in many ways, history has a way of repeating itself. In the last two months, we have seen the Supreme Court gut the Voting Rights Act, taking away the main elements of the Voting Rights Act," King said.

King, 55, is an activist and former leader of both the King Center in Atlanta and, like his father, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On Saturday, he spoke at the commemoration of the March on Washington and his father's famous speech. He said the anniversary should again be viewed as a call to action.

The criminal justice system has made great strides, but there remain stark injustices for blacks.

"The verdict in the Trayvon Martin issue stated to lots of young people in America that it is difficult for young African-Americans to get justice in the American criminal justice system. Almost 60 percent of those jailed are black folk," he said.

While the United States is a great nation, he said it is still a divided nation that has been further riven by the poor economy. Racial gains have been made, but he said hardly any gains have been made against poverty.

"There are large numbers of unemployed people, particularly African-Americans," King said. "Masses of people are still struggling in our nation. In 1963, probably 20 million people were living in poverty. Today that number is 100 million."

Too few follow the path of non-violent conflict resolution embraced by his father and Ghandi.

"Violence is escalating -- whether it be the United States' military overseas or right here in our neighborhoods. We've got to find a way to live together without harming each other's property," King said.

He said there is plenty of evidence that Americans are good people who can put aside differences. Every disaster or catastrophe shows that characteristic.

"It's a crisis, and Americans are geared up to help. And, when the crisis seems to be resolved, we go back to our separate quarters. It's almost like it turns into a different energetic vibration," he said.

So after 50 years, he said it is still about jobs, justice and freedom. He's not sure how his father would view our nation today.

"Perhaps, had he lived, our nation would have gone in a different direction and other great leaders and the whole country would've taken a different direction -- that direction would be more humane, more civil," King said. "In some ways, we have become barbaric. When we look around the nation and in our community, we can see this."


Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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