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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. | Updated on 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).

Naturally, she said yes. She called the national CORE office and sent a telegram to President Kennedy. She was not going to let Florida be portrayed as an idyllic paradise when she knew what blacks were experiencing there.

Rising anger among black youth

Patricia was not quite 24 in 1963, but she was well-respected by youth chapters of civil rights organizations throughout the state because of her leadership of the sit-ins in Tallahassee in 1960 and arrests and subsequent jail-in when she was only 20 years old.

Anger was growing among young student activists because of the violence police directed against them. After the St. Augustine demonstrations, Zev Aelony, a CORE field organizer, had gone to Ocala, Florida, to assist the new CORE chapter there. He was arrested and beaten in jail. When Patricia went to Ocala to try to visit Aelony in jail, she was arrested, along with the massive numbers of youth from the Youth Council of the Marion County NAACP who followed her there.

There was a growing mood among blacks that America was not protecting black people but instead was assassinating its leaders in a war. The demonstration planned for August 28, 1963, was touted as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But many factions within the movement were going to the march to demand that Kennedy and the federal government pass a civil rights bill and use its national police powers to protect black people in the same way it protected South Koreans and Cubans. The Southern filibuster by the old and "New" Southern states was no longer accepted as an excuse.

Some of the young people derisively called the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "Dr. Coon." They were ready for a change.

This was the context in which Patricia and I were invited by the Miami CORE chapter to travel as VIP guests on the Freedom Train that had been organized by the organizers of the March on Washington. The Freedom Train would leave from Jacksonville and make stops along the Florida East Coast Railroad route in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia to pick up freedom fighters. Many of them were young, not yet in their 20s. Many were field workers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, who had been jailed and brutalized. They were angry in mood but also felt a building joyous excitement, singing freedom songs all along the way.

The speakers

When Patricia and I arrived in Washington, we learned that each of the leaders of the various civil rights organizations that were part of the freedom movement would be permitted to speak. The NAACP, SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Urban League, the Porter's Union (A. Phillip Randolph had conceived of the idea of a March on Washington in 1941), the National Council of Negro Women, as well as CORE.

We learned that CORE's national director, James Farmer, had not arrived. Farmer had been in Louisiana to help the CORE chapter there and had not returned, nor had anyone heard from him. This was a frightful situation. NAACP Mississippi Field Secretary Medgar Evers had just been assassinated in June.