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Event To Commemorate, 'Recreate' Historical March

Aug. 27, 2013
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

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Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech during the March on Washington, his words still resound across the American landscape—“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

While King’s speech is, perhaps, the most recognizable aspect of the March on Washington, it was far from the only speech given that day.

Ten speakers, in fact, participated on Aug. 28, 1963, according to Jeffrey Littlejohn, associate professor of history.

In honor of those activists, and their resulting accomplishments, Sam Houston State University’s history department will get into the spirit of the march by commemorating its 50th anniversary, on Sept. 4, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Farrington Pit.

The commemoration will feature Dallas-based artist Ronald Oliver, who will produce an original oil painting on site as the event unfolds, while musician Biola Rotibi plays freedom songs to celebrate the march.

As a “creative reinterpretation of the day’s events,” and to encourage participation, students and scholars also will be asked to volunteer to read excerpts from speeches from the day of the march, paying homage to the life and work of W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Modjeska Simkins, King, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and Malcolm X, among other leading civil rights activists.

“The March on Washington was the high point of the Civil Rights Movement, and it brought together representatives from a number of major organizations,” said Littlejohn. “These individuals, as well as others, came together in this demonstration. It was the largest peaceful demonstration in U.S. history for civil rights, with 250,000 people in attendance.”

The participants in the historic march both celebrated what had been accomplished and also highlighted how much work still needed to be done to ensure that African Americans and other minority groups received their civil and voting rights, according to Littlejohn.

In addition to King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which peacefully protested racial discrimination in Alabama, other predominant groups fighting for the cause included the NAACP and its leader, Roy Wilkins, which had successfully litigated a number of civil rights lawsuits, including Brown vs. the Board of Education; and John Lewis and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which oversaw student sit-in demonstrations, the freedom rides of 1961 and remained a force for change in voter registration throughout the south.

Randolph, an African American labor leader, was the first individual who proposed a march on Washington, D.C., in 1941, when he pressured President Franklin Roosevelt to issue an executive order that promised to end discrimination in war-time industry, which was exclusionary to African Americans at that time.

“One thing we want to do with this event is celebrate this past march and its accomplishments, but another thing we want to do, and we are going to do at this event, is talk about some of the continuing legacies of discrimination and what has to be done to try to overcome those.”

—Jeffrey Littlejohn

Another major player who took a leadership role in organizing the march was Rustin, who was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and was so devoted to a life of non-violence that he was imprisoned for refusing to fight in World War II as a conscientious objector.

“Rustin was the individual who came to Montgomery when King was starting the Montgomery bus boycott and really taught him about the principles of Gandhian non-violence. King knew a little bit but Rustin really had a long track record,” Littlejohn said. “Rustin was also gay, and people knew that he was gay in 1963, which was different than being gay today. He was ostracized by some people, arrested on at least one occasion for his sexual behavior, and consistently encouraged by leaders within the movement to hide his feelings or change his behavior.

“Despite these challenges, Rustin proved to be a dynamic, influential, remarkable person, and so we’re going to try to bring some attention to his role in the movement as well,” he said.

The Sept. 4 commemoration, Littlejohn said, is an effort to familiarize SHSU students and the community about these men, their groups, and their contributions, by having participants read the men’s original words.

“We’re hoping to make it very interactive and participatory for students and other faculty; it’s not going to be history faculty giving talks,” he said. “We hope that vocalists, dancers, artists, and speakers will come together to pay tribute to our nation’s outstanding civil rights tradition in this interactive remembrance of the high point of the black freedom movement.”

Also in capturing the spirit of the Aug. 28 march and like the leaders of that day, Littlejohn hopes that attendees will consider the work that still needs to be done regarding current race relations in the country, especially in light of the Trayvon Martin case; the recent release of Fruitvale Station, a movie highlighting the life of Oscar Grant III, who was gunned down by police at the Fruitvale BART station in Bay Area, Calif.; and growing concerns about the wealth disparity between white and black households.

“A recent book called The New Jim Crow is about the prison system and the disproportionate number of African Americans, Hispanics and minorities, in general, who are in prison,” Littlejohn said. “There are more black men in prison now than were enslaved in 1850, 10 years before the Civil War. That is a startling fact.

“One thing we want to do with this event is celebrate this past march and its accomplishments, but another thing we want to do, and we are going to do at this event, is talk about some of the continuing legacies of discrimination and what has to be done to try to overcome those,” he said.

Attendees will be able to purchase a print of Oliver’s original painting that will be created during SHSU’s event.

For more information, contact Littlejohn at littlejohn@shsu.edu or 936.294.4438.



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