50 years later, local memories of a march, a speech and MLK

jshaffer@newsobserver.comAugust 25, 2013 

  • Mary Perry

    Age: 83.

    Hometown: Wendell.

    Went to March on Washington: On a bus from Raleigh.

    Became: President of Wendell-Wake NAACP.

    Quote: “King said, ‘I have a dream.’ Well, I had a dream, too – that my children would be better off.”

    Bruce Lightner

    Age: 66.

    Hometown: Raleigh.

    Went to March on Washington: Hitchhiking from Raleigh.

    Became: Owner of Lightner Funeral Home, son of Raleigh’s first black mayor.

    Quote: “I was curious about who this guy King was. I kept thinking, ‘Why would somebody feel it important to have a march on Washington?’ Just the term. Never been done.”

    Johnsie Snipes

    Age: 70.

    Hometown: Raleigh.

    Went to March on Washington: With a friend from Virginia, unbeknownst to her parents.

    Became: Wake County school teacher

    Quote: “My son is 42. He still can’t put in his mind that we had different water fountains.”

    Barbara Lee

    Age: 66.

    Hometown: New Bern.

    Went to March on Washington: On a bus from New Bern.

    Became: New Bern alderwoman and a candidate for mayor this year.

    Quote: “We changed things. I don’t think the desire is there now. There’s a satisfaction with where we are.”

    Farries Slade

    Age: 66.

    Hometown: New Bern.

    Went to March on Washington: On a bus from New Bern.

    Became: Pastor and bishop at St. Mark Church of Christ.

    Quote: “The magnetic force in that speech, it was a motivator.”

On the morning of Aug. 28, 1963, five young black men and women left North Carolina to march on the nation’s capital – all of them driven by pride, stung by prejudice and thrilled by the momentum of their time.

Three rode buses and sang church songs along the highway north. One caught a ride with a friend, fibbing to her worried parents about their destination. One sneaked out of the house early in the morning and hitchhiked from Raleigh, riding with a pig farmer and a trucker.

They carried the cruelties of the Jim Crow South to Washington, D.C., where they found a worldwide spotlight.

Two had been jailed as teenagers for resisting segregation, joining the sit-ins at a New Bern five-and-dime. One had been escorted to the police station in Wendell because she confronted a white girl who stepped on her cousin’s foot. All five sensed they were riding into history.

But none could guess how much the day would matter.

None of them had ever seen a crowd that big.

None of them figured the words they heard, “I have a dream,” would be chiseled in stone one day, or that “Moral Monday” protesters would borrow the same tactics and rhetoric in 21st-century Raleigh.

And none of them could predict how different the world would look in 50 years, half a century after they saw the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. make what most historians consider the greatest speech of the 20th century.

Bruce Lightner would see his father elected Raleigh’s first black mayor.

Barbara Lee would serve decades as a New Bern alderwoman, then run for mayor herself.

Mary Perry would retire as the longest-serving leader of a local branch of the NAACP.

Johnsie Snipes would teach this history to thousands of Wake County students.

Farries Slade would speak it from the pulpit.

As the anniversary approaches, a handful who saw that pivotal moment reflect on their lives then and now, hair grown whiter.

A different world

To imagine Raleigh in 1963, erase from your mind almost everything you know about it.

Only about 95,000 people lived here – less than a quarter of today’s population, not nearly as many as now inhabit Cary.

Fewer than 10,000 students attended N.C. State University, which had no Centennial Campus.

Downtown had no skyscrapers. The I-440 Beltline didn’t exist. Capital Boulevard had the name Downtown Boulevard.

Most people shopped, ate and entertained themselves on and around Fayetteville Street. Black customers could not sit at lunch counters and had to watch movies from the balcony. To question this invited arrest or injury.

The Ku Klux Klan marched openly in those days. You could see them on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, or on U.S. 64 in Knightdale.

By 1963, protesters active in the civil rights movement had been challenging segregation across the South for nearly a decade.

Lunch counter sit-ins had spread across the state, starting in Durham in 1957, then famously at the Greensboro Woolworth’s in 1960, then coming to Raleigh later that year. More than 150 people protested whites-only service downtown: Woolworth’s, Hudson-Belk, Eckerd’s. Raleigh Mayor W.G. Enloe, for whom a high school is named, issued this statement: “It is regrettable that some of our young Negro students would risk endangering Raleigh’s friendly and cooperative race relations by seeking to change a long-standing custom.”

The week of the March on Washington, violence broke out in other parts of the state. The News & Observer reported on state troopers joining the police in Williamston after 400 black students pelted officers with soda bottles. Nonviolent protests there had endured for most of the summer, with counter-protests from the Ku Klux Klan. An Associated Press reporter covering the rally was threatened by a white man with a pistol.

Daily indignities

The five who joined the March in Washington experienced racism as a daily indignity, and they chose to rebel in ways their parents often had not.

Mary Perry grew up in Wendell, a small Wake County town where she still lives at age 83.

During her girlhood in the 1950s, downtown Wendell had a movie theater that seated both black and white patrons. Whites sat downstairs, blacks in the balcony. When Perry was 15, a white girl stepped on her cousin’s toe on the way to their seats. The girl didn’t stop. She didn’t apologize. So Perry approached her, her tone a bit angry.

“Aren’t you going to say ‘Excuse me?’ ” she asked.

Because of this defiance – a black girl speaking to a white girl in a less-than-friendly tone – somebody called the police. The chief soon arrived at the theater and took Perry to the station. He reprimanded her, asking, “What’s your problem?”

Then he sent Perry home. She was 15 at the time, and she never forgot that day.

Half a state away, Barbara Lee came of age in the projects of New Bern, where racial strife was more turbulent and segregation even more rigid.

You didn’t shop in the stores in New Bern if you were black, recalled Lee, now 66. You waited for the fish man to come around and sell goods from a cart. Or the insurance man, who would bill people by tacking an envelope on their houses. Or the blanket man, who also sold hair grease.

“From where we lived, you didn’t go downtown by yourself,” she said, “because you’re black.”

Whites sat down to eat in restaurants. Blacks ordered at windows and ate standing up.

Whites rode buses to school, recalled Farries Slade, now a pastor at St. Mark Church of Christ in town. Blacks walked, he said.

But New Bern had an NAACP Youth Council, to which Lee belonged, and these long-standing customs didn’t sit well with them.

They met at Rue Chapel AME Church and marched downtown. “It seemed like every night,” said Lee, a teenager at the time.

So many people demonstrated in New Bern that prisoners were kept in the basement under City Hall, an overflow section, Slade and Lee recalled. Below the street, the protesters sang through the basement windows, adding new civil-rights themed verses to old church songs. “Michael led the picket line ...,” Lee remembered.

Fifty years later, Slade recalled the sting of knowing he could go to jail just for looking at a white woman.

Now a pastor in Greenville, he marched in New Bern in 1963 because the youth there had been united through their common dissatisfaction with the social norm. For the first time, he said, young people got the idea they could overturn old injustices if they just stuck together.

“To be a youth,” he said, “you couldn’t hang around New Bern and not demonstrate.”

Different rides to D.C.

The March on Washington drew people from as far west as California and as far south as Mississippi, and the word blanketed every corner of North Carolina – often through the churches.

But along with the logistics of traveling 300 miles north, when interstate existed only in chunks, came the challenge of talking Mom and Dad into giving permission.

Peaceful protesters had been beaten, attacked by dogs, subjected to fire-hose blasts – even children. Parents didn’t like the idea of teenagers in the line of fire, no matter how righteous the cause.

“They were leery,” Lee recalled in New Bern. “They were supportive, but they didn’t have an understanding. They had a fear for us.”

Lee and Slade were part of a well-organized group, and they walked door-to-door gathering donations for the trip, collecting money in sand pails. They rode along with four busloads.

In Raleigh, Perry joined a bus caravan leaving from Martin Street Baptist Church. She was older than the pair of teens from New Bern, but she traveled to Washington with a girlfriend, leaving her husband and children back in Wendell.

But a pair of others had to sneak their way into history.

Johnsie Snipes was a college student in 1963, a junior at what was then St. Augustine’s College. She lived with her parents in Raleigh, and she knew they were too skittish to let her travel all the way to Washington, where there might be clashes with police or racist whites.

So she made up a story, telling them she’d be visiting her friend in Lynchburg, Va., safely out of harm’s way.

“I wanted to see,” she said. “They would never have let me go, so why ask them?”

On the morning of the march, 16-year-old Bruce Lightner crept out of his parents’ house at dawn, pretending to go to his summer job at the Chavis Park pool.

His father, Clarence, was a prominent black funeral director in Raleigh. Thanks to this connection, the younger Lightner had once shaken hands with King at an earlier speech.

Now he was sneaking north on U.S. 1 to see the speech for himself.

“I felt like if I had asked them, they would have said ‘no,’ ” Lightner recalled. “That was probably my first act of civil disobedience.”

He caught his first ride on the corner of Glascock Street, and it took him about four blocks. The next ride, with a trucker, took him all the way to Virginia. In Richmond, he hitched a ride with a farmer with a pig in the back of his truck. Once in northern Virginia, it was easy to find people on their way to the march, and Lightner soon found himself on the National Mall, 300 miles from home, surrounded by a sea of people.

He climbed a tree near the Lincoln Memorial, unpacked his peanut butter and jelly sandwich and his Thermos of Kool-Aid, and got ready to listen.

“When I was in the tree,” he said, “I asked myself the question, ‘What in the hell was I doing here?’ ... I was just a kid.”

‘Act without fear’

By August standards, the weather was mild in Washington, the high reaching only 83 degrees.

But with a quarter-million people jammed between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, many of them cooling their feet in the reflecting pool, the air could feel stifling hot.

The bus from New Bern unloaded, and Lee and Slade waded into the crowd, walking longer than it would take to walk most anywhere at home. Perry’s bus from Raleigh spilled more North Carolinians into the sea of faces.

“I could walk then,” Perry said. “I was young. It was such a glorious time. Everyone was so upbeat.”

As she walked, people from all over the country introduced themselves. From Georgia or Tennessee. From New York.

If you were there, you suddenly realized that you weren’t alone – that the oppression you experienced in your hometown had happened to all of these people, stretching across the lawn rolling down from the U.S. Capitol. All of them were gathered to force the same change you wanted, and to do it through a peaceful appeal to democracy.

Famous faces floated through the sea of people. Dick Gregory. Harry Belafonte. Mahalia Jackson.

Familiar faces, too.

Durham lawyer Floyd McKissick Sr., the same person who had gotten sit-in protesters out of jail in New Bern, spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“Play well your roles in your struggle for freedom,” he said. “In the thousands of communities in which you have come through out the land, act with valor and dignity, and act without fear.”

A call to action

King spoke for only 17 minutes.

But when he began, the crowd fell completely quiet – enough to hear every word.

In the 50 years since King gave this speech, it has been replayed countless times on television and in classrooms, to the point where the words “I have a dream” are as familiar as the Pledge of Allegiance to anyone who has attended middle school.

Scholars speak of its cadences, its rhythms, its repetitions – all of which mimic the most poetic passages in the Bible.

They speak of its historic significance, coming 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and calling for America to finally fulfill its promise of equality.

They compare its brevity, gravity and significance to the Gettysburg Address, often cited as the greatest speech of the 19th century.

They point out that King had given versions of the speech before and that the words “I have a dream” weren’t in his prepared notes.

But to the people who saw it spoken for the first time, the speech was a call to action, a message to carry back to their hometowns and a dream to make a reality.

Snipes looked around her and saw people crying.

“Chills just went all over my body,” she said. “So many things he said, we were living it here in Raleigh.”

Still, nobody knew they’d just heard words that anyone would ever memorize or carve into statues. They just knew they saw King.

He could have just said, “Hello,” Lee remembered, and that would have been enough.

Decades of service

No doubt King’s speech gained much of its stature after his assassination.

Not three weeks after the March on Washington, four girls died when a bomb exploded in the basement of their church in Birmingham, Ala. – an atrocity that brought further attention to the violence inherent in segregation and that brought more people into the movement.

With passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, then the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King’s attention turned to poverty and the Vietnam War, issues that would consume him for his last three years.

But as the speech seeped back into the public consciousness, it grew stronger in the hearts of the people who witnessed it and who saw its promise start to reach fruition.

Clarence Lightner, who would be elected Raleigh’s first black mayor, forgave his son for sneaking away to the march. He knew Lightner’s impulsive act had been a mark of strong character.

“I’m mad at you,” he told Lightner, now 66. “But I’m also proud of you.”

Slade would become pastor of St. Mark. He would take the lessons from his youth into his sermons, and maybe a little bitterness.

“We changed things,” said Slade, 66. “I don’t think the desire is there now. There’s a satisfaction with where we are.”

Lee spent more than 20 years as an alderwoman in her native New Bern, the city that wouldn’t let her sit down to eat as a child. She focused on low-income housing and public transportation, and she’s now campaigning in a seven-way race for mayor.

She, too, has bittersweet feelings about the legacy of her activism.

“Now that I’m grown up, I look back at the time of segregation,” she said. “It forced us to deal with one another. When we did integration, we lost something. You look at kids in school, and there’s no way in hallelujah you could behave that way.”

In Wendell, Perry had been active before King’s speech. But afterward, she made it her mission to register voters, personally bringing more than 10,000 to the polls. Before retiring, she served as president of the Wendell-Wake branch of the NAACP for longer than any other chapter head.

She turned out for a voting rights rally in downtown Raleigh as recently as March, when she had long since turned 80.

The event, led by the Rev. William Barber II, would precede the weekly Moral Monday protests at the General Assembly, which employed the same nonviolent tactics and preaching-style rhetoric that King employed 50 years ago.

But Snipes, now 70, who taught fifth and sixth grades in Wake County for several decades after the 1963 march, provided the strongest bridge to a new era of student.

“I taught black history every month of the year,” she said.

Her son is 42, and he still can’t believe the stories she tells of separate drinking fountains and white men in hoods.

So imagine a fifth-grader, born 20 years after King died, who knows the civil rights leader only through documentary films and archival footage.

Imagine that student meeting someone who witnessed his most famous day.

“I tell them it was unique,” Snipes said. “First of all, they thought you were old as dirt. But their ears, their eyes, they just ate it all up.”

So did Snipes and the rare living peer who saw it happen.

Five young men and women went to Washington in 1963, and the words they brought back still ring in their ears.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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