Remembering Rose: Tears flowed during speech but significance unrealized

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 15, 2012

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
The white free lance photographer stopped taking pictures while Martin Luther King Jr. talked about his dream of a free America. He had to. Suddenly, unexpectedly, his eyes filled with tears, and he couldn’t see through the lens.
And he wasn’t alone.
Dr. O.K. Beatty, professor of biology at Livingstone College 25 years ago and back now as interim president, was home watching television that Wednesday afternoon 25 years ago when more than 200,000 people marched on Washington to ask for jobs and freedom.
King was one of 10 speakers, but he was different. Beatty listened, but he couldn’t have shot a picture either.
“My eyes were just full of tears,” he remembers. “When I think of it, I think of it in the same sense as the Gettysburg Address. It was so significant. And what is so significant about it is that it has come to pass.”
But history is made in baby steps. Nobody knew what was going to happen then.
The Post didn’t carry the names of who from Rowan County was among those labor leaders, preachers, students, teachers, movie stars, workers, unemployed, black and white, from all over the nation.
In fact, The Post paid little attention to the march the day before, as the crowd headed toward the nation’s capital. Other things got front page headlines. Response was good to a plea for a burned out family. Rowan County children were starting school. Railroad unions were planning a strike at midnight the next day. And KKK Grand Dragon Robert Shelton was injured — and his pilot killed — when their private plane crashed on the way to Washington. He wouldn’t say why he planned to go there on the day of the march but he said the plane crash wouldn’t keep him from a Saturday night rally in Rowan County.
Near the bottom of the page was a brief item. Fifteen to 20 people from Livingstone would take part in the march on Washington. Among them would be the Rev. Harlee Little, public relations director, and other faculty members, students and some ministers.
Inside the paper an AP story reviewed the ancient heritage of non-violent resistance that stretched back to Adam and Eve, Drew Pearson recalled other marches on Washington, and the AP reported march leaders were asking for calm and dignity.
The next day The Post’s front page announced the march was orderly and its air jovial. The day was sunny but cool for August, with the temperature in the high 70s. Martin Luther King wasn’t mentioned.
Inside the paper AP reported the event was not likely to sway Congress — and it didn’t. No civil rights legislation was passed until after Kennedy was assassinated.
The day after the march The Post said James McIlwaine of Rowan met with Rep. Jim Broyhill. Inez Robb wrote about popcorn. Ground beef was advertised at 39 cents a pound, and AP reported the march was massive, orderly and moving, but civil rights leaders still faced the task of putting ideals into action. King was quoted once. The 34-year-old minister had received the greatest applause.
“I have a dream that one day … the little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”
White children starting to school in Salisbury that week went to Frank B. John and A.T. Allen and Henderson and Wiley schools. Black children went to Lincoln and Monroe. White children sat at the front of the bus; black children, at the back. White children drank from unmarked water fountains; black children, from water fountains marked “colored.”
“Young people today,” says Wiley Lash, former Salisbury mayor, “don’t know about the hard times we had and the kinds of conditions we had, any more than I can relate to slavery.”
So who went to Washington to ask for change and be counted among the 200,000?
Harlee Little, James McIlwaine, 20 unnamed people from Livingstone College, and the Rev. James Abernathy of East Spencer went to Washington.
Abernathy worked for Southern Railway then and had so many relatives in Washington he could stay with a different one every night for a month, so he often took the train to visit the nation’s capital.
“And when they advertised that they was having it, that was at the time I had my vacation,” he remembers, “and I told the wife, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
They went.
Elizabeth Jones, the cousin they stayed with that time, had grown up in Salisbury and went to Price High School. She knew her way around and easily got them to the march.
When they got to Washington, he remembers, “there were so many people in the station you couldn’t move.
“We marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial,” he says. “That was a long walk.” And still the people came.
“They was coming in all kinds of ways, by train, by so many buses. I seen more buses in Washington than I seen taxicabs. They was coming from all directions. You could see those buses lining up. They looked like a train. It was something.
“We was marching behind a union from New York. I’ve forgotten how many different organizations was there. White and black. It wasn’t just black there.
“They had other speeches. A movie star — a white movie star — made sure he came there and spoke. They had singing. Mahalia Jackson — she sung a couple of songs.
“Everybody could hear. They had speakers all around the crowd,” he says. “We got there up towards the front where we could stand back and look right straight there where the speakers’ stand was.”
But it’s King he remembers.
“I enjoyed that speech. I have it here now myself. I was telling my cousin, ‘You know that man is speaking. I say, he’s telling the truth.’ A good many of them cried. You could see them shedding tears, white and black, while he was talking.
“Everybody, they just loved that speech. Everywhere we went, even when we got back. He was hoping that one day all the little black boys and the little black girls and the little white boys and girls was going to join in for unity.”
And he still loves it. Tomorrow morning, when he takes the pulpit at his home church, Southern City AME Zion, while the preacher is on vacation, he’ll probably quote some of it, to remind the people. That speech is good to remember.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Retired Livingstone librarian Louise Rountree doesn’t remember a Livingstone group going to Washington, but then school hadn’t started yet after summer vacation, and she was in South Carolina visiting her mother.
“I remember watching it on television,” she says. “I was moved by all of it. The beginning, the end, all of it. Having come out of pure segregation I had a whole lot of feelings seeing something like that. I remember wondering what the outcome would be and wondering who would benefit, if anyone.”
She had heard King speak at her niece’s graduation from Morgan State, and she had kept a copy of the speech.
“My niece was there that day,” she remembers, “and she wanted to know if I remembered that speech, and we pulled it out and compared, and some of the same things that he talked about in Washington, he was talking about in that speech.
“I didn’t think it was so big at first, until I heard them describe the number of buses rolling through Washington, and the space they were taking up and thinking about all those people there and thinking maybe somebody would get crushed …
“But I felt like it was a move forward.”
Martin Luther King and al those other people in Washington were dong what her mother used to say had to be done. “The best things in life are not free. They cost energy, commitment and a sense of dedication.”
Wiley Lash, retired Salisbury businessman and former Salisbury mayor, wasn’t there either.
“I remember watching the whole thing on television,” he says, “and thinking maybe I should have been there. When things like that come up, even now, you wonder if you want to be part of it. When it happens, you feel you should have been a part of it. It was very moving.”
Martin Luther King most of all.
“His non-violent movement was the kind of thing I appreciated. He was very dedicated to what he believed — and he had the gift of saying it so he moved people.”
The speech, said James Reston of the New York Times, “was an anguished echo from all the old American reformers, Roger Williams calling for religious liberty, Sam Adams calling for political liberty, old man Thoreau denouncing coercion, William Lloyd Garrison demanding emancipation, and Eugene V. Debs crying for economic equality.” He delivered it with the symbolism of Lincoln and Gandhi and the cadences of the Bible.
And everyone understood him.
In Wiley Lash’s grocery store the next day people bought their lunch and talked about the march and Martin Luther King.
And if he were here today Lash thinks King would be pleased.
“A lot of progress has been made,” he says. “Of course, we know it’s not perfect, but what we’ve got to do now is within the black community. We’ve got to motivate our people to achieve and be serious about life as it is in the United States.”
The quarter of a century since that day, Beatty says, “have been painful and trying and there have been days and months of struggle.”
But, he says, “I think the American dream is in sight.”
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”