‘March on Washington’ a measure for progress

whenry@tri-statedefender.com | 8/27/2008, 7 p.m.

Organizers didn’t expect the March on Washington to draw the more than 250,000 protestors to the nation’s capitol on Aug. 28, 1963. Nevertheless, they came, assembled between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and sounded a clarion for “jobs and freedom.”

A contingent from Memphis also converged in Washington and returned with renewed vigor, a sense of responsibility, and with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoing all around them.

On that same date in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Miss., reportedly for whistling at a white woman. Fear permeated the African-American community. But Dr. King’s dream provided a semblance of hope for those from Memphis.

Forty-five years later, the March on Washington is still fresh on the minds of Joan Lee Nelson, Johnnie R. Turner and Maxine Smith, who’d hope change would happen sooner.

On Thursday, the anniversary of the historic march, the change they were looking for is being manifested in Sen. Barack Obama, the first African American to accept the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States.

But are Obama’s accomplishments enough to say that African Americans have made significant gains in America over this 40-plus year period? Nelson, Turner and Smith agree that there have been some successes, but disappointments as well.

‘Our young people need more’

“What woke me up to the world was when Emmett Till was murdered,” said Joan Lee Nelson, also pointing to the 400-year history of African-American plight. (Photos by Wiley Henry)

Joan Lee Nelson was just 16 years old when she made the historic journey to D.C. to protest what she believed was gross indignation against African Americans.

It was just by happenstance, she said, that someone from the NAACP suggested that a member of her family, known for their arrest record, should fill one of three vacant seats on the NAACP bus.

“The NAACP called to the house and said they had three extra seats on the bus and one of the Lees should go,” said Nelson, one of 14 children by Robert Edward Lee and Alversa Williams Lee.

“I was working in the summer as a part time secretary for Maxine Smith and was designated by my family to go to Washington, D.C., for the March on Washington.”

Though young and sprightly in 1963, Nelson wasn’t too young to get herself arrested in 1960 when she was passing to the 9th-grade at Manassas High School. She followed several of her siblings to jail for non-violent protests.

The heat was stifling that day on the Washington mall, Nelson remembered. But it didn’t stop her and the tens of thousands of protestors from demanding justice.

“What woke me up to the world was when Emmett Till was murdered,” said Nelson, also pointing to the 400-year history of African-American plight. “But we have to some extent held ourselves together.”

Despite the history of wanton violence against African Americans, the groundswell remained peaceful, Nelson said. “I felt the absolute spirit of the movement and brought it back with me.”