Kennedy Civil Rights

President John F. Kennedy stands with a group of leaders of the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, at the White House. From left are Whitney Young, National Urban League; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference; John Lewis, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, American Jewish Congress; Dr. Eugene P. Donnaly, National Council of Churches; A. Philip Randolph, AFL-CIO vice president; Kennedy; Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers; Vice President Lyndon Johnson, rear, and Roy Wilkins, NAACP. (AP Photo)

BLOOMINGTON — Just months before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the United States witnessed an iconic moment in the civil rights movement.

The Kennedy administration and others around the country worried the massive March on Washington would turn violent, but the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a peaceful crowd on Aug. 28, 1963, with his dream for jobs and freedom, said IWU professor and 1960s activist Paul Bushnell.

Overall, it was an inspiring landmark in the civil rights movement, despite administration worries that the March would draw negative attention to civil rights legislation.

“I used to watch (King) at the time and do the things he was doing and he gave us hope,” said Henry Gay, a longtime member of the Bloomington-Normal chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The 50th anniversary of the March had a similar effect, said fellow NAACP members Pamela Hart and Jerry James, both of whom attended.

“Experiencing the March (anniversary), to me, it was phenomenal,” said Hart, who was 2 in 1963. “There was a feeling in the air that we’ve come so far from where we were.”

The bus ride home was a day of reflection, she said.

“It just spread like wildfire, people telling their stories,” said Hart, who remembers as a little girl asking her mother why there were two water fountains — one for whites, one for “coloreds” — and seeing the hurt in her eyes.

“This happened in our lifetimes,” she said. “Some young people feel it occurred centuries ago, (that) we’re so far removed from that time period.”

Hart said it’s important younger generations take note of the recent past, appreciate progress and recognize what still needs to change. “We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go,” she said. “When you know where you come from … that denotes to you that you can’t help but strive to do better. … To know very little about your history and your heritage, that is tragedy.”

James watched the 1963 March on television and found the anniversary “enlightening.”

“It gave you more pep to confront what’s ahead. We’re always going to be in a struggle,” James said, citing voting rights, police overreach, lack of employment opportunities and wage stagnation as continuing serious issues.

“When we talk about things as African Americans, it’s perceived as an African American issue,” but in reality civil rights laws have helped numerous segments of the population, including women, James said.

“We have to move the country forward. Everyone has to … be empathetic to how other people feel.”


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