Just after dawn on an August morning 50 years ago, 58 Minnesotans boarded a plane to Washington, D.C., and became part of history.
They went to stand for human and civil rights in America — to send a message to Congress that discrimination in voting, housing, jobs and education had to go.
After marching with 250,000 others to the Lincoln Memorial, the delegation listened as a young Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
They returned inspired, fired up, rededicated to the cause — and with their work cut out for them. Early in 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, in a memorable speech of his own, vowed to defend “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” That spring, in Birmingham, King had been arrested and jailed, and the nation had watched on black-and-white televisions as dogs and fire hoses were turned on civil-rights workers.
Several weeks before the Washington march, activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi, gunned down in his own driveway. Shortly after the march, four black girls were killed when their church was firebombed in Alabama.
Before the end of that year, President John F. Kennedy, who had welcomed the march and had called segregation immoral, also was killed by an assassin.
Among those in the Minnesota delegation were local civil-rights activists Josie Johnson and Matt Little. Johnson, now 82, is a former Minneapolis Urban League director and retired associate vice president and Regent at University of Minnesota. Little, now 92, is a retired post office superintendent and was president of the Minneapolis NAACP for many years.
In separate interviews, Johnson and Little talked about the march and its meaning, and about how America has and has not changed. Following are edited excerpts:
On attending the March on Washington 50 years ago this week:
Johnson: I had been working on the struggle for our rights long before 1963 — back to the days when I was growing up in Texas. So I had been deeply involved in the issues that were highlighted at the march. In fact, the march had been proposed in the 1940s — back then, A. Philip Randolph suggested it. But it was denied then … they worried that there might be violence and that it might create more problems than it would solve.
But in 1963, President John F. Kennedy said he would receive it. I remember it being very quiet that day when we arrived early in the morning. There was no one on the streets, and we wondered if anyone would show up. But then the crowds started coming. It was a tear-jerking, moving experience. We felt so honored to be there … to watch the program as it unfolded with speakers of so many races and religions.
And to hear Dr. King … I don’t think anyone expected that type of speech, nor the impact it would have on people across the nation. To hear him place all of our hopes into such a meaningful refrain is something we will remember forever … everyone in control, listening, nodding, crying and feeling the impact of his words.
It was very inspiring. We were fighting against laws that defined who we were, what we were and what we could do as a people.
Little: Running up to the march, Minneapolis had been built up nationally as a place for civil rights in part because of Hubert Humphrey … he made a tremendous speech on civil rights at the [Democratic National] Convention [in the late 1940s that later led to the Democrats’ including civil rights in their platform].
I was president of the NAACP and was called on to coordinate our delegation. I was so involved in civil rights that I wanted to serve those who had elected me to be NAACP president. But it was something I’ll never forget …
We marched right behind the large, boisterous New York delegation and ended up fairly close to the place where the speakers were. At times when King spoke, the crowd went wild, but there were also times when everyone quieted down — in great reverence for the occasion and for what he had to say.
On the organization and instructions for the march:
Johnson: We were given strict instructions about how to handle ourselves. We had to sign a contract that said we would remain nonviolent — we could not retaliate if we were attacked.
And I remember that there were some people in Minneapolis who did not go because they said they couldn’t commit to that. Some of those who wouldn’t sign the contract were people who helped us raise money to go to Washington.
Little: I never expected it, and for a while I thought about saying no. … At that time, there were a lot of violent, horrible things happening in the South to civil-rights workers, and I was worried about that happening in Washington. We had to raise the money — $5,000 to charter a plane …the local religious community really helped us with that.
We had some hard rules to follow — in addition to signing the nonviolent pledge, there were other requirements. The national NAACP wanted each delegation to have so many women, so many unemployed, etc. — representatives of the issues we were fighting for. These were not options. We were required to do this. Remember, it was a march for jobs and freedom.
Johnson: We were taken directly from the airport to the basement of a church where members of our congressional delegation (Don Fraser, Hubert Humphrey) were there to greet us and give us encouragement.
We went to the march and had to leave town before sundown that day, for our own safety. And that’s exactly what we did.
[Note: The 58 who flew to Washington were selected by local civil-rights and religious groups to be part of the official delegation. Other Minnesotans traveled separately to attend the march.]
On why the march mattered:
Johnson: Would the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s have happened without the March on Washington? I don’t think so.
There were such feelings of joy and hope at the march. And through the ’60s we felt that we really could change the laws and make a difference for our people …
Little: I was overwhelmed by what happened that day — it took me completely by storm. … I was almost in a trance. When we got back on the plane I told the group that I was in another world and hoped that everyone felt the same. Then there was a big roar …
The strong feeling was so much within me. We couldn’t let it go, we had to take these feelings and carry on. So we organized the Minnesota March on Washington committee. And one of the first things we did was organize a lot of young people in Minneapolis to go down south to Mississippi to help with voter registration.
At that time, it was felt that the needs were greater in the South, so we sent people there while still working on jobs, education and housing here.
On 1963 vs. 2013:
Johnson: When President Obama was elected in 2008, it seemed that he represented one of the little children Martin talked about and was judged by ‘the content of his character.’ But I realized quickly that his goal had by no means been achieved. The way this president has been treated? Disrespected? I was there when a member of Congress shouted “liar” at his speech. I believe the president’s election freed those who believe in white supremacy to be the worst that they can be.
We changed the laws and had some progress. But the attitude that we, black people, are somehow less than [others] is deeply etched into the fabric of society. We have not yet changed many of those attitudes, hearts and minds. And that keeps our people from being fully emancipated.
Little: There has been progress, no doubt about it. I grew up in a small town in North Carolina in an apartheid-like situation. I’ve lived deep discrimination and now … now my little hometown has a black mayor! The president [Obama] is progress.
I never believed we were in a “postracial” society. We cannot fold our books and say this is it. There is still a need for the Urban Leagues and NAACPs. They and white organizations that helped us took part in making change — progress in the past didn’t happen by osmosis.
We still need to work on getting jobs and good education for our people. It’s a gradual process that no single thing can solve.
Johnson: I never believed I’d live long enough to see a black president elected. And I also didn’t think I’d live to see members of Congress in whom supremacy was so deeply ingrained that they’d rather take down America than support a black president.
I’m saddened and disappointed by that. With all the hope and optimism we had after the march in ’63, I didn’t realize at that time that changing laws wouldn’t be enough. Racism was very carefully taught and justified; it is deeply etched into the fabric of American society.
I was so hopeful when the president was elected … that young black men would look at him and see a future for themselves. But when they watch and see how even the president is disrespected … they have to ask themselves what difference will it make if I work hard?
When we could look at laws that denied opportunity we could say that if we change the laws … if we get an education, a job, etc. … things would be different and we depended upon that. Now we find there are other ways we can be denied and you begin to think that it wasn’t just the laws. It’s the way people are treated, the deeply ingrained attitudes that are barriers. It’s so complex.
That’s a troubling environment. It’s not a comfortable feeling at age 82 to have hoped for so long that we’d get there. Now I’m not so sure that we will.
On continuing the cause of the march in our time:
Johnson: Education continues to be key — for everyone. We need to help people understand why they feel the way they do about us. We must work to help this country unlearn what it was so carefully taught about who we are.
I’ve said that America has become a fast-food society that doesn’t know how to read and consider a menu. One that wants everything now and doesn’t do much critical thinking. Lies can be told and people don’t challenge them. There is a belief system that has gotten away from truth … and democracy.
That’s been a weight on my heart. Why there hasn’t been more joyful reaction to what the president has done relative to our belief in democracy?
I just pray and work and support the best I can the effort to keep the struggle before us. We cannot let our guard down. We have not reached that point, and I’m afraid it will be a while before we do.
Little: Are there things we need to do within our own communities? Absolutely. But when it is said that the problems of the community are only cultural, I view that as an excuse.
We can do both at the same time — work internally on our communities and fight against discrimination from the wider community.
Just as I have seen progress in my lifetime, there will be more progress in the next 50 years. The battle goes on. When I get discouraged, I think back to that day in 1963 and it gives me courage to go forward.
Denise Johnson is a Star Tribune editorial writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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