WASHINGTON — The East St. Louis and Springfield chapters of the NAACP chartered a bus that carried a diverse group of riders from the metro-east, as well as across Illinois, to attend a rally Saturday in memory the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
The bus riders were eager to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original march on Washington, D.C.
"It was a spiritual and emotional event that I could feel in my heart," said Stephen M. Pruitt, of Centreville.
Pruitt said he was particularly impressed by one of the day's speakers, the Rev. Bernice King, one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughters.
"Her prayers were that we be filled with determination to continue the fight for jobs, justice and freedom for every American," Pruitt said.
Stanley Franklin, president of the NAACP's East St. Louis chapter, said Saturday's march reminded him that "we have come a long ways, but we still have a long ways to go."
Franklin noted that in 1963 the original marchers on Washington were "fighting for an end to blatant racism, better and more jobs for blacks, as well as justice and freedom, especially equality."
Those who took part in Saturday's march also wished to protest the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to invalidate a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as protest Stand Your Ground laws around the country "that have been unfairly distributed to African-Americans," Franklin said.
One of the riders on the NAACP charter was Daryl Joseph, 15, of Rockford. Joseph said at first he didn't wish to travel to Washington for Saturday's march, but his mother insisted that he take part.
Joseph said he was glad he took part, and that the experience taught him all people should be free.
"Because if you're not free, you don't have the ability to go where you want to go, eat what you want to eat, drive a certain car or get a good education," he said.
Robert Betts, the city of East St. Louis's director of regulatory affairs, coordinated the bus trip to the nation's capital.
"As powerful marchers descended on Washington to remember Dr. King's speech 50 years ago, it spoke volumes to the many, many challenges that lie ahead for America," Betts said. "There is a greater need for economic and environmental justice all across America. Our people need jobs and they need jobs now. Most of the Washington politicians have become complacent, and bold leadership and extraordinary policy changes are needed to address the issues that have plagued our country. "
Betts added that he hopes the trip to Washington changed the lives of the bus riders "in some way" and they "do the work necessary to make the changes come about."
The bus originated in the metro-east but picked up others across Illinois, including Josh Schwenk, 22, in Champaign.
Schwenk said he traveled to Washington because he had seen a combination of things, including the Supreme Court recently cutting away at the Voting Rights Act.
The last straw for him was the Trayvon Martin verdict.
"Although racial relations have improved, we definitely still have a lot of work to do," Schwenk said. "This occasion is historic and it came at the right time because we really need to come together and talk."
Schwenk added that it was "a sight to see all of those people. It looked liked the original march in 1963."
Schwenk said he understands how people feel when their right to vote is threatened.
"You feel like you're not a part of it. African-Americans were born here, and like everyone else who was born here, they should have the right to vote," said Schwenk, who is white.
Schwenk also was disturbed by the Martin verdict. He said, "He was stalked and murdered, and the person who was responsible for his death did not go to jail."
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.