Today is the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. As we reflect back on this era in America’s history, when the “least” of us rose up to shake off 350 years of bondage and injustice, veterans of the movement become nostalgic. From Pine Bluff and numerous other cities across the country, hundreds of thousands of people; black and white, rich and poor, priests/pastors and laymen, entertainers and farmers, children and adults converged on the nation’s capital to demand legislation that would end racial discrimination throughout the South and the nation.
As the Greyhound bus on which we traveled careened through the hills of Tennessee and Virginia, we sang freedom songs such as We Shall Overcome, We Will Never Turn Back, and What Side Are You on Boy, even adding Lord, Guide This Bus Driver While We Run This Race! The ethos of the 1960s was presented in a united front to change the unjust laws of the United States of America. Not since the revivals of the 18th century had we seen such a move of God throughout the land. There was an urgency for “FREEDOM NOW!” Too long had we suffered, too long had we been humiliated and oppressed. Generations of prayers and tears came to a culmination.
The eye of the nation was finally seriously focused upon the indignities we suffered on a daily basis. We could be cursed, demeaned or talked to in any manner by white folk who had been taught that we were less than human. No titles of respect were used and names were changed to whatever the speaker to call us – sometimes “uncle,” “auntie,” “girl” or “boy.”
Throughout the South, black people were hanged, imprisoned, maimed, shot, raped, tricked, schemed against, and had no recourse. Our cases had been argued over and over again in the courts by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, but the perpetrators were almost always exonerated. For centuries, murderers and thieves had been allowed to go free. Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education was the end of the litigation road. The 1963 March on Washington was a march for civil rights and for jobs.
The non-violent battle cry of the Civil Rights Movement was “Jim Crow must go!” Signs with “Colored” or “White Only” written above; riding in the back of the bus; sitting in the balconies of movie theatres; using back alleys to urinate because we were forbidden the use of public facilities; unable to eat in public restaurants or stay in hotels when traveling; denied access to jobs paying sustainable wages.
Most of the work available was chopping and picking cotton, or cleaning, ironing and babysitting in the homes of white people, or working in their yards. With the exception of teaching and practical nursing, professional careers were impossible.
Usually, there were one or two doctors. As with me, I am sure that others of my generation internalized a sense of resentment for this injustice, and with such incidents as the death of young Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and others, decided enough is enough. We were determined to change the status quo.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott showed us that “Where there is a will, there is also a way.” Out of this atmosphere, the non-violent direct action movement was born. This was the zeitgeist of the times throughout the South – to shake off the yoke of bondage with our bodies and if necessary — with death.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part column series.
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Joanna P. Edwards, Ph.D., is a retired professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She is an ordained minister and is currently an adjunct professor at UAPB teaching Old and New Testament history. She lives in Pine Bluff.