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MY WORD: Marching to realize the dream

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By Stephanie Manica Williams

Why was I marching on Aug. 24, in Washington, D.C.? The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in 1963, five years before I was born. I grew up in a very small racist town Shelbyville, so I take civil rights to heart.

Being an African-American female, the 1963 civil rights March on Washington, DC left a bittersweet feeling. We still have to realize the dream. Some of the same issues and racism civil rights leaders marched for in 1963 still exist today.

Recently this year I was racially profiled and harassed at a reputable hotel. I was a guest using the public restroom when I was racially profiled and harassed by a White attendant. The white attendant asked me why I was using the restroom, who I was and then asked me how long I would be using the restroom. None of the other white women using the restroom were questioned. The experience left me feeling humiliated. I felt as if I was stripped of all my dignity and rights as a citizen. I suffered from post-traumatic stress. Still today I avoid using that same restroom in the hotel.

That experience took me back to the years of 1876-1965, when Jim Crow laws existed with separate restrooms for whites and blacks. The hotel conducted a thorough investigation. They determined that I was racially profiled and harassed. The hotel apologized to me and made a commitment to provide more diversity training within the company.

As a child I was always reading about civil leaders and the civil rights movement, particularly the late Rev. Martin Luther King. Rev. King was my hero in that he was the only man that moved the nation using non-violence.

Growing up and still today when I hear the famous powerful “I Have A Dream” speech, Rev. King’s voice emotionally moves me like no other voice can. The speech was more like a church sermon that left you wanting more. The adrenaline ran through my veins as if I was right there at the March of 1963.

In his speech, Rev. King used a plethora of enriching metaphors that set the tone for one of the most inspirational and memorable pieces of oration. “I Have A Dream” is repeated in eight successive sentences and is one of the most-often-cited examples of anaphora in modern rhetoric. By order of introduction, the key phrases tell much of King’s story:

  • “One hundred years later…. “ [paragraph 3].
  •  “Now is the time…  “ [paragraph 6].
  • “We must…  “ [paragraph 8].
  • “We can never (cannot) be satisfied…  “ [paragraph 13].
  • “Go back to…. “  [paragraph 14].
  • “I have a dream…. “ [paragraph 16 through 24].
  • “With this faith…. “ [paragraph 26].
  • “Let freedom ring (from)…. “ [paragraph 27 through 41].

His words motivated me to make a pledge to march ahead on Aug. 24 and to get more involved with the community in St. Louis, where I live. In 1963 Rev. King told the crowd to go and continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. He said, go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama and etc. to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. I hope this march will inspire others like myself to go back to St. Louis after the march and work together as a community to make St. Louis a better place to live for all citizens.

 

Marching for future

I was marching not to celebrate the commemoration of the 50th March; rather I marched as a continuation of the efforts of 50 years ago.

As Rev. King mentioned in his speech, “1963 is not the end but a beginning.” We must continue to fight to make justice a reality. During his speech, he asked the audience a question. He said, There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “when will you be satisfied?” He paused after asking the question as to give the people something to think about.

I marched because I am not satisfied after 50 years of the continuation of racism, police brutality, racial profiling, lack of jobs, poverty, low-minimum-wage jobs, women still making less than their male counter parts, the Supreme Court dismantling a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act that

will keep many from the polls, many low income people and minorities’ facing environmental challenges that is threatening their health and their lifestyles, youth facing challenges with rising college student loan interest rates and the school system failing our children. The unaccredited schools in St. Louis are among those that have failed our children.

I marched to put an end to all the senseless killings from black-on-black crime to police brutality. I marched for the justice of Trayvon Martin, the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk law in New York to the stand-your-ground law in Florida.

I concur with Rev. King that an injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere and that is why I stood up for justice by marching.

I was excited about the bus trip to the March on Washington but a little disappointed in that I would not have the opportunity to ever meet the late Rev. King and to hear his “I Have A Dream” speech live.

 

In Kentucky

During the year 1985 in Kentucky I participated in the Upward Bound program that took a group of teenagers on a summer trip to visit different colleges and universities. I was 17 years old at the time. We visited Berea College, located 39 miles south of Lexington and 113 miles southeast of  Louisville. I will never forgot that day. Read about it but never thought I would experience racism to that magnitude.

A group of African-American teenagers got off the bus to visit the college. It was like a little old country town with antique stores, candy shops, restaurants and etc. It was around noon, and we were hungry. We begin to walk from the college to the stores in search of food and to shop.

As we approached each store, the white people fled the stores, and we were told the store was closed as the “OPEN” sign on the door was suddenly flipped to “Sorry We Are CLOSED” written on the back side of the sign.

It was like a domino effect. Soon all the stores were closed. We were instructed to get back on the bus by our chaperones and instructors. I was so angry and even more so because I couldn’t do anything about it.

Berea College’s motto is, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” It is a Christian college that promotes the cause of Christ. That incident let me know I was not wanted there because of the color of my skin. which was one of many reasons why I left Kentucky at the age of 18 and never moved back.

The Web site thetoptens.com lists Kentucky is listed as No. 8 8 as one of the most racist states. Missouri is listed as No. 14 and Utah No. 28. These are all states that I lived  in and experienced racism.

 

The march

It was an 18-hour bus ride to the 50th march, and we arrived at 12:38 a.m. We had rooms at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Arlington, Va. I met a lady on the bus, Joyce Brown, and we never slept in our hotel rooms. We immediately took showers and got dressed for the rally and march.

We called a cab at 2:45a.m. that took us to 15th street, near where the rally and march

took place. There we took pictures of Rev. King’s monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We introduced ourselves and talked to other people who had camped out on the sidewalk. A security worker stopped to make sure we were okay, as it was dark and we were walking in the dark.

The security worker asked, “You guys could not be here this early for the March?”

We told him we came too far from St. Louis to miss this opportunity! The man was kind enough to get on his radio to give us all the details to beat the crowd and get good spots. We were there so early we got to watch the stage and etc. get set up. I did at least 10 interviews with reporters.

The NAACP handed posters to people to use during the rally and march, however I made my own poster. My poster drew a lot of attention. Some people asked if I had bought it, and others wanted to know if I was a school teacher because it was so well put together. My 2-sided poster told a story and in fact was everything that Rev. Al Sharpton addressed in his

speech.

I met a lady, who is writing a book and asked my permission to use my picture and a poster in her book. I plan to donate my poster to one of the museums. What started out to be just a fun project drew attention from hundreds of people.

It was very touching when two young African-American boys asked to take pictures of my posters. They looked like our typical African-American boys, but their pants were not sagging. They were about 14-16 and could have been anywhere but they were there to learn.

One of the young boys was explaining to the other what my pictures on my poster meant. As I listened I became emotional that the one knew the story that I was trying to tell in my posters and its relationship to the today.

When the young man got to Emmitt Till and Trayvon’s story, I joined him by explaining the correlation between the two murdered African-American boys. I met so many people that shared a

common goal, and that was to realize the dream.

As I was marching beside a Chinese family, the little boy asked his father why they were marching. I stopped and my mouth flew open in surprise. The Chinese father started explaining to his son about the first civil rights March in 1963 and the  speech. This was another touching moment for me to know that the civil rights movement have impacted not only the African-Americans but the Chinese, too.

Later I found myself next to a white family, and the little girl was asking her mother about the boy’s picture on the poster and why people were walking in the streets singing. The mother began to explain that the picture was of Trayvon Martin and how he was killed. Then the mother went on to explain the March of 1963 and that it was a celebration of the 50th March.

I also was interviewed by a Russian reporter while at the march. The march was an educational experience that has still touched many people even 50 years later. It was a most memorable experience that I always will  remember.

 

What to do?

The one common question all reporters asked me was, “Why did you come to the March?’ and the second common question was, “What is the one thing you hope will come from this march?”

It was very interesting that the reporters’ final question was, “What will you do as an individual after this March to fulfill the dream?”

I explained to the reporter that I am currently very active in my community as a member of the NAACP, Urban League, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Within these organizations I volunteer in the community, educating and registering voters, mentoring to the youth, assisting the United Way with local emergencies such as cities hit by tornados, using my human resources professional expertise in assisting people with finding jobs.

Although my children never attended public school and are out of school now I attend town hall meetings regarding the St. Louis unaccredited schools and transporting students to accredited schools and assisting with educating the community about sexual transmitted diseases and other health issue plaguing the African-American community.

The March of 1963 was the beginning not the end in that 50 years ago it paved the road now we have to continue to work together to realize the dream or we all will perish like fools.

 

Stephanie Manica Williams, a native of Shelbyville, now lives in St. Louis.