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At March on Washington: The anger, the fear, the love and the hope

By John D. Due Jr. | 8/25/2013, 12:48 p.m.
Thousands rallied at the National Mall Saturday, August 24, 2013, to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic August 28, 1963, March on Washington. (Photo by CNN).

Editor's note: John D. Due Jr. is an attorney who has been a civil rights and community activist for more than five decades, primarily in the state of Florida but also in Mississippi, where he organized people to vote at risk to his life. In 1964, he represented the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when King was arrested in St. Augustine. Due's wife, Patricia Stephens Due, who led the first jail-in during the civil rights movement, died last year. CNN's documentary "We Were There: The March on Washington - An Oral History" will be shown at 8 p.m. Sunday.

(CNN) - The summer of 1963 was hot. I'm not referring to the weather: Young black activists were beginning to question their commitment to nonviolent tactics.

Blacks were tired of feeling like their lives didn't matter as government officials in the South watched, condoned, and/or led attacks against nonviolent demonstrators. Blacks were tired of the failure of the Kennedy administration to act. Blacks were tired of the reeking hypocrisy of the "New South" states like Florida, which tried to pretend that racial oppression didn't exist within their borders.

My wife, Patricia, and I were at the March on Washington that hot summer.

She could have spoken that day. But they were afraid of what she would say.

Florida's tarnished image

Patricia had been arrested in April 1963 for demonstrating in front of a Tallahassee movie theater. She was a leader of the Tallahassee chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, an interracial group that used nonviolent tactics to fight discrimination, and had significant influence with the national organization. She was arrested with about 200 students mainly from a black college, the Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, but also from white colleges Florida State University and the University of Florida.

Florida Gov. Thomas Leroy Collins had been nurturing an image of a new style Southern governor -- one of moderation -- to support tourism and investment in the planned Disney World attraction. Florida was supposed to be a "New South" state that was different from Alabama, with its police and Klan violence in Birmingham against youth in 1963, and neighboring states Georgia and Mississippi.

The case of Due v. Florida State Theater stemming from the students' arrests was an embarrassment to the state, and was followed by demonstrations in St. Augustine with students from Florida Memorial College led by black dentist Dr. Robert Hayling, who was then the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People youth adviser.

Florida's "New South" image was tarnished after the Tallahassee and St. Augustine demonstrations, and the protests sabotaged the plans of Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy administration, which had high hopes of having Miami Beach host the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

After the arrests of the college students in St. Augustine, I was in our apartment studying for the Florida Bar exam when Hayling called to ask Patricia for help. Could she use her influence with the national CORE to enlist their support in trying to block the Democratic National Convention from taking place in Miami Beach?