TERRE HAUTE —
Fifty years ago today, Theressa Bynum was a college student working for the summer in Washington, D.C.
She knew that a big civil rights march was planned that day near the nation’s capital, and there had been many cautions about going to the event because recent civil rights rallies had been touched by violence.
“People in Washington were anticipating problems, so people were nervous, and a lot of people didn’t go to work,” Bynum said. But once at work that day, she and some coworkers wandered over to the rally site to see for themselves what turned out to be a historic turning point for the civil rights movement.
“It was exciting,” she recalled Tuesday, talking about that historic day 50 years ago. “Just to be there, and to feel the whole atmosphere, and the enthusiasm of people. To see how people were excited about being there.”
Bynum said she had been working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since she was a 14-year-old girl living in Nashville, Tenn. She had helped register people to vote, even though at the time she herself was too young to vote.
And, she had worked with the well-known NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in Mississippi just a few weeks before the March on Washington.
Being in the nation’s capital on that day gave her an opportunity to watch up close as more than 250,000 civil rights supporters gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She stood near the steps of the monument, and she could see as bus loads and car loads of people arrived to participate.
“I was so close, and it was so crowded,” she said. “And of course, it was extremely hot, and I felt like I was going to pass out.”
The ‘Dream’ speech
After a while, she and her friends decided to leave the crowded scene so they were leaving the stage area when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his famous “I have a dream” speech with a call to end racism in the United States.
“By the time Dr. King started speaking, we were walking away from it, but we could hear him through the speakers that were set up along the way,” she said. “Just to be there, and to feel the whole atmosphere, and the enthusiasm of people, and to see how people were excited about being there, it was incredible.”
The peacefulness of the march was a turning point for the civil rights movement, she said.
“We came here to say something by our presence and to speak in one voice, and to do it loudly without being offensive,” she said.
The public had gotten used to seeing televised violence at civil rights rallies — not necessarily from the participants, but by people opposed to the civil rights movement.
“For them to show we can come together and say what we need and be peaceful about it, it was a beautiful thing,” she said. “Another thing that was so important is how people came away with a feeling of unity and to have determination. We knew what we wanted. It just didn’t stop with the march. That was just to awaken the public to what was needed.”
Still, ‘racism abounds’
Congress at the time had not yet passed the Voting Rights Act. Nonwhites did not have access to all hotels, even in the nation’s capital. Jim Crow segregation laws were in effect. And people were threatened and killed when they tried to exercise their right to vote.
The years that followed the march saw Congress pass anti-discrimination legislation. Schools were desegregated, and, eventually, the civil rights movement faded to the background of American society.
But Bynum and many others say that the United States has continuing challenges in the battle against racism, poverty and justice.
“I think the challenges are pretty much the same in that you still have so many hate-filled people who want to keep putting roadblocks out there,” she said. “Racism abounds, and we still have apathy.”
Many good people are actively involved in resisting racism today, she said, but there are others who want to “turn back the clock” to what they call simpler times.
“The difficulty is, we see some progress as we go forward, and they think things are all right,” Bynum said, noting that voter challenges still exist today, but in the format of the voter identification laws that work against low-income and elderly people. “Some people don’t know our history, and as the saying goes, if you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it.”
She called today’s voter I.D. issues “the same old thing warmed over, they’re just coming at if from a different angle.”
Immigration issues are often the focus of racism, Bynum said. Jobs, health care and education equality continue to be issues for many American citizens, she said, and some of the groups with the loudest voices on those issues are being well-funded to oppose progress for people.
“We’ve got to get people out of poverty with job opportunities, a living wage so they are able to sustain themselves,” She said. “It’s disgusting what a small percentage of wealthy people are willing to spend to keep others down.”
Terry Clark at Indiana State University’s African and African American Studies program said that voter suppression laws remain a major civil rights concern.
Many in the nation are also divided about the Affordable Healthcare Act, and there is still a great racial divide about the criminal justice system.
Clark said that he sees a “disconnect” between the current day students in college and the students of 50 years ago who protested, marched and were behind many of the sit-in efforts that goaded America to change.
“There is a disconnect with this generation because they were born in an era where there is no civil rights movement as we recall it,” Clark said. “Dr. King is just a historical figure to them.”
Remembrances of events such as the 50th anniversary march are critical to American society, he said, because there are still inequalities that need to be challenged, such as voting rights and poverty.
“There should still be open dialogue about these things,” Clark said.
Sister Kathleen Desautels of the Sisters of Providence agrees that today’s societal issues of jobs and living in harmony are issues that King would still call for today.
The Sisters have an anti-racism committee that seeks to address such issues. She pointed to the highly publicized killing of Treyvon Martin and the trial and exoneration of gunman George Zimmerman as an example of the “same kind of racist attitudes” that people faced 50 years ago.
Recently in Chicago, 50 schools were closed because of funding. A majority were in African-American neighborhoods serving children who must walk several blocks farther through dangerous neighborhoods to get their education.
Valerie Hart-Craig, president of the Terre Haute Branch of the NAACP, said three busloads of “marchers” traveled from Indiana recently to attend this past Saturday’s commemorative march.
Local NAACP branches are still vital in their communities because of racial bias issues that crop up on a regular basis, she said, noting that King’s “dream” may not have been realized yet, but it is still worth the effort.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.