Sarah-Ann Shaw, a Roxbury native who later became a pioneering television reporter in Boston, was a student organizer in the summer of 1963. Fifty years ago this month, she and her young daughter drove to the now-historic March on Washington with high hopes.
“I thought it was the right thing to do and that everyone should go to bear witness,” Shaw remembers. “We all thought the march would solve all of our problems and that discrimination could be ended. We really thought that freedom was tomorrow.”
Progress came at a far slower pace— and with many years of struggle and setbacks. But the March on Washington stands today as a seminal moment in the Civil Rights movement and its approaching anniversary — on August 28— has given rise to commemorations and special events across the nation, including several here in Boston.
In Dorchester, the John F. Kennedy Library will host an afternoon conference on Sunday, August 18, from 12:30 to 4:30 pm. The event will include a panel discussion with historians, civil rights leaders, a Kennedy administration official, and a veteran journalist. The highlights will be keynote remarks from Congressman John Lewis - who spoke at the march from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago.
Shaw plans to be at the Kennedy Library this weekend to relive her own experience and — in particular— to hear from Lewis.
Shaw says she wishes more people knew more about the other speakers that day beyond just Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, an address forever enshrined in the national imagination.
“If you didn’t know better, you might think he was the only person who spoke that day. I am sorry that more of the speeches that happened that day aren’t recalled,” said Shaw. “Hearing John Lewis speak today, I think people would have had an even broader idea of what it meant to try and secure freedom had they heard him.”
Here in Boston, organizations are using the anniversary to put the civil rights movement into historical context, as well as to organize around current issues.
Bishop Frank Kelley of the Way of the Cross Church was too young to attend the 1963 march, but he plans to attend a 50th anniversary event in Washington, D.C., where President Obama, among many others, will give a speech in remembrance of King’s legacy. Together with Deborah Mitchell, a library aide at the Mattapan branch of the Boston Public Library, he has hosted a series of discussions at the Mattapan branch for people interested in talking about civil rights today, as well as gathering people to go D.C.
So far, he said, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and the group is planning to take about 20 buses down to D.C. for the weekend of the 28th.
“We’ve had a high response from those who actually attended the march 50 years ago,” Kelley said. “They want to try and make youth aware of the importance of this march, and how it impacts is today.”
Kelley mentioned some of the concerns that still confront the nation today, from the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case, and the recent Supreme Court decision to strike down section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965— the very same act that many say the march on Washington and King’s speech helped to enact. Kelley points to this as proof that “inadequate and insufficient laws regarding our rights” still exist. He added that it is important for Boston to elect a mayor that will “champion these causes.”
“We see this anniversary not just as a celebration, but as a continuation of Martin Luther King’s efforts,” Kelley said.
The Boston branch of the NAACP is also chartering buses to bring people down to D.C. for the 50th anniversary events. They hope to fill about three buses. Dana Richardson, a Vice President of the NAACP’s Boston branch, said that the gathering in D.C. will have an NAACP presence from across the nation.
“We want to give people from Boston the experience of that moment,” he said. Richardson also emphasized the importance of passing on the knowledge of this event to youth. “Our youth need to be prepared for the future,” he said. “We should be teaching kids about policy, leadership, and civic engagement.”
As a non-profit, Richardson said, the NAACP relies on the support of volunteers, and he encouraged all to join the cause on the eve of this historic anniversary.
This Sunday’s events at the Kennedy Library will be taped and broadcast on C-SPAN. On the actual anniversary of the march, August 28, the library will show the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, a film about the march’s primary organizer. Nancy Kates, the film’s director, will take questions after the film. Both events are free and open to the public.
Tom Putnam, Kennedy Library Director, said that the library has a responsibility to commemorate the march because of the Kennedy administration’s pivotal role in the civil rights movement.
“The interplay that lay between the civil rights movement and the pressure on JFK to advance civil rights for all citizens is a quintessential element of his presidency,” said Putnam.
On August 8, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s Education Team and baritone Philip Lima teamed up with the Yawkey Boys & Girls Club in Roxbury to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march. Lima performed the speech, set to music, for the young kids, and they also heard bits of other music from the period.
“The kids learned about the importance of music during the civil rights movement,” she said.
The event at the Yawkey Boys & Girls Club was organized as a precursor to the Landmarks Orchestra’s “I Have a Dream” 50th Anniversary Concert. The entire concert, set for August 28 at 7 p.m. at DCR’s Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, is centered around the ideas of Martin Luther King.
According to Harron Ellenson of the Landmarks Orchestra, there will also be an official ASL translation of the speech at the concert. The Landmarks Orchestra is reaching out to those who were at the march 50 years ago, and encouraging them to attend the concert and share their memories online at landmarksorchestra.org.
Sarah-Ann Shaw says she looks forward to reliving elements of her trip 50 years ago at Sunday’s event at the Kennedy Library.
Other than the heat that radiated from the mall on the notoriously steamy Washington D.C. day, Shaw doesn’t remember many specifics from the day’s events. But she remembers the feeling that she carried home to Boston.
“I think people felt exhilarated by the march. It still took a while with the Voting Rights Act, but people were enthused and had more hope than they had before, because so many people came from all over the country,” Shaw recalls. “You knew there was segregation in the country, but you didn’t really understand how entrenched it was.”