March on Washington veterans remember – Interview
by Ivan COURONNE
WASHINGTON, August 23, 2013 (AFP) – Fifty years ago in segregated America, Eleanor Holmes Norton could have never imagined she would one day represent the US capital as a black congresswoman.
Norton was 26 years old and working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when more than 250,000 people converged on Washington to march with Martin Luther King Jr for civil rights.
“The last thing I imagined was anything connected with service in the government,” Norton told AFP from her office in the US House of Representatives ahead of celebrations commemorating the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
“Government didn’t stand for anything positive,” she added, explaining the blatant racism present in Congress at the time.
As a Yale University student, Norton was involved in a risky effort to register African Americans as voters in the state of Mississippi, a southern bastion of the Ku Klux Klan with a long history of racism.
Ahead of the march, Norton helped organize the event, setting up transportation to Washington and mobilizing participants by telephone from a dilapidated building in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem.
“We had spent 10 years in demonstrations that had swept through every single Southern state,” Norton said.
“There were no remedies in the South. The seat of power, the nation’s capital, was the only source of remedies and we thought that 10 years of demonstrations and protests and boycotts of every kind had prepared for that.”
But Norton recalled that even the civil rights movement’s most ardent backers, including the John F. Kennedy administration, tried to dissuade the activists, citing fears of violence.
“We thought that laughable. The movement had spent 10 years in passive non-violent resistance,” she said.
And then, on August 28, 1963, Norton stood with other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee behind the speakers at the foot of the Abraham Lincoln statue that overlooked the huge crowd.
What was most memorable to me was not the speeches — they were extraordinary,” Norton said.
“What was most memorable to me… at the memorial itself, looking out, was that I knew I was seeing a sight that had never been seen in the nation’s capital, because as far as the eye could see, you could not see the end of the crowd.”
It was Bob Moses, 28 years old at the time, who had recruited Norton in Mississippi. He said the march was just a “picnic” compared to the South’s rough and tumble politics.
“We were coming out of sort of the battleground, with terror and violence and murder,” Moses said, recalling how several of his colleagues were killed.
“You learn how to live this guerrilla warfare, and you are living off of the people.”
In Mississippi, Moses had sought, in vain, to register black voters. But the real goal was to document local authorities’ systematic exclusion of African Americans from voting.
For all the euphoria surrounding the March on Washington, horror soon followed.
On September 15, white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black girls.
Others later went on a spree burning churches across Mississippi, what Moses dubbed a “reign of terror.”
Department of Justice officials called in Moses and accused him of inflaming tensions with his voter registration campaign.
“I reminded (the officials) that the uptick in the violence in Mississippi began after the March on Washington, and continued straight to the fall,” said Moses, who now heads a mathematics literacy effort at public schools.
“Mississippi was the collateral damage of the idea that we were going to have a national shift in policy on civil rights. And the people in Mississippi were exposed and unprotected.”
The violence convinced Moses to pursue his efforts. In 1964, he organized Freedom Summer, a high-profile attempt to register as many black voters as possible in Mississippi.
That same year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation that forbade discrimination on the basis of race or sex.
US-HISTORY-RIGHTS-NORTON – 08/23/2013 05:45 GMT – AFP
Service: World News (EAA)