Jour­nal­ist, cit­i­zens re­call 1963’s March on Wash­ing­ton

The Covington News - - LOCAL - MICHELLE KIM The News sub­mit­ted photo /The Cov­ing­ton News

The March on Wash­ing­ton on Aug. 28, 1963, was a sem­i­nal mo­ment in the Civil Rights move­ment, which re­shaped the so­cial land­scape of Amer­ica.

With peo­ple con­verg­ing on Wash­ing­ton, D.C., this week­end to cel­e­brate the 50th an­niver­sary of the march and Dr. Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s land­mark “I Have a Dream” speech, three lo­cal res­i­dents de­scribe their ex­pe­ri­ence of the march that day from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.

For­mer Ox­ford res­i­dent Claude Sit­ton was there that day as a work­ing re­porter.

Sit­ton, who at­tended Ox­ford Col­lege and grad­u­ated from Emory Univer­sity in 1949, was The New York Times’ cor­re­spon­dent cov­er­ing the South and the Civil Rights beat from 1958 to 1964. He would go on to be­come the edi­tor of The Raleigh Times and News and Ob­server in North Carolina, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for com­men­tary in 1983.

But on the day of the march, Aug. 28, 1963, he pro­vided anal­y­sis of events lead­ing up to the march.

“But I did not cover it,” he pointed out. “I went down early on as the day started and talked to the peo­ple who would come in and went back to my ho­tel room to write a story, news anal­y­sis of what the events were that led up to it and where it might go up to that day.”

The New York Times’ Wash­ing­ton bureau was cov­er­ing the events and didn’t much want help from the South­ern cor­re­spon­dent.

Sit­ton de­cided he would watch the day’s events in the same way most of the na­tion and politi­cians would – through tele­vi­sion.

“I wanted to see what peo­ple at home, they were see­ing. That march pro­vided the proof be­hind the pub­lic’s po­lit­i­cal will­ing­ness to make that change. Congress had to feel the vot­ing cit­i­zenry was ready to make that change.”

That year, 1963, was an ac­tive year in the Civil Rights move­ment.

“There was the as­sas­si­na­tion of Medgar Evers, there was Ge­orge Wal­lace in the so-called stand in the school­house door at Univer­sity of Alabama,” Sit­ton said. “There was Birm­ing­ham. My God, Birm­ing­ham.”

But the seeds of the civil rights move­ment had been sown long be­fore, with Thur­good Mar­shall’s cases and the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sions.

Many of the lead­ers of the move­ment were World War II vet­er­ans who had served abroad to pro­tect Amer­ica’s rights and free­doms only to find they did not have full rights when they re­turned home.

And it would take key play­ers, such as Lyn­don John­son, and his­toric mo­ments, such as the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy, to bring things to a head.

Sit­ton re­called that at the march, about a quar­ter to a third of the crowd was white.

“Whites as well as blacks were part of the move­ment,” Sit­ton said. “Ralph McGill of the At­lanta Con­sti­tu­tion, Harold Flem­ing, who headed the South­ern Re­gional Coun­cil, and did more in his day to ed­u­cate out of town news­pa­per men. Wil­liam B. Camp­bell from Mis­sis­sippi, who just died the other week, he was a min­is­ter who went around the South hold­ing the hand of preach­ers who got in trou­ble.”

To­day, the is­sues that were be­hind the civil rights move­ment have changed, he said.

“You’ve still got the civil rights strug­gle. It’s dif­fer­ent. The aims are dif­fer­ent. The op­po­si­tion to those aims are dif­fer­ent.”

In Au­gust 1963, Elaine Davis-Nick­ens was a 17-year-old just grad­u­ated from re­cently in­te­grated McKin­ley High School in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and headed to Howard Univer­sity. Her par­ents owned Dutch’s Del­i­catessen on Florida Av­enue, just blocks from the Capi­tol, national mon­u­ments, and the vi­brant cul­tural cor­ri­dor of U Street. Davis-Nick­ens grew up in a po­lit­i­cally and civi­cally aware fam­ily. Her fa­ther had fled from a small town in South Carolina.

“He al­ways talked about race re­la­tions, he al­ways talked about how things were. He’s the kind of per­son who’s al­ways been his own per­son, which made things dif­fi­cult for him to live in the South.”

Davis-Nick­ens had read and heard about Dr. King and other civil rights icons who would be speak­ing that day. It was a heady time for a po­lit­i­cally ac­tive young adult, and this was just one part – but an im­por­tant part – of what was hap­pen­ing at the time.

The young teen walked the four blocks over and 10 blocks down by her­self, com­ing close enough to see the peo­ple on the stage but not close enough to make out their faces.

It was a day she’ll never for­get.

“It was a whole spirit of hope. It was just phe­nom­e­nal the num­ber of peo­ple that had come from all parts of the coun­try. … I re­mem­ber look­ing around at all those peo­ple, just feel­ing not over­whelmed, but just feel­ing full.”

She re­mem­bered there were many peo­ple, in­clud­ing her­self, who were crying dur­ing King’s speech.

“The sin­cer­ity, the ap­peal, the sense of what was right, not right only for us but for ev­ery­body… Ev­ery­thing that had hap­pened to us as a peo­ple, ev­ery­thing that he led to hap­pen, he (King) is one of the few peo­ple I’ve ever heard in my life who was able to ar­tic­u­late it.”

Cheryl Board was much younger – 5 years old – but she still re­mem­bers the day. Her fa­ther had just grad­u­ated from the New York City Po­lice Acad­emy. He would go on to be­come a spe­cial li­ai­son un­der Rudy Gi­u­liani. He was driv­ing with her from Ge­or­gia to New York and de­cided to stop by the march.

“So many peo­ple were crying. I just thought it was a big crowd of peo­ple hear­ing a man speak,” said Board.

Board, who has a light com­plex­ion and mul­ti­cul­tural back­ground, first be­came aware of the dif­fer­ences in the world when she was vis­it­ing her grand­mother, who lived in Vir­ginia, and was told that she couldn’t go to the Wool­worth’s counter.

“That was the first time I started real­iz­ing there was a dif­fer­ence… It in­stilled in me the strug­gle I would have the rest of my life.”

This week­end, Davis-Nick­ens will be at­tend­ing the an­niver­sary events with her grand­chil­dren, who live in Wash­ing­ton, and her grand­son, who is the same age she was when she first at­tended 50 years ago.

She wants to re­gain that sense of hope from that day and pass on the im­por­tance of those ex­pe­ri­ences.

“The thing that both­ers me is that I carry all that and... there’s a whole group of peo­ple who have no inkling, no idea.

“It’s one thing to read about it in his­tory. It’s an­other thing to have been there and ex­pe­ri­enced it,” she said.

Sit­ton

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