On Aug. 28, 1963, Shirley Johnson boarded a bus from Miami to Washington, D.C., to join the March for Jobs and Freedom. She remembers the bus trip as being joyous. The passengers were singing hymns and praying for a safe journey as they drove through the segregated South. They did not know what lay ahead and the magnitude of the occasion of which they would be a part.
Upon making it to the nation’s capital, the visitors joined more than 250,000 others for what became a key milestone in America’s racial advancement.
Fifty years later, on Saturday, Johnson returned to the place where she said her dedication to civil rights began, the Lincoln Memorial, again joining tens of thousands gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march.
The crowd included students, politicians, social activists, whites, blacks, Latinos and members of the LGBT community. The diversity of the people was a reality of the vision which Martin Luther King Jr. proposed in his famous “I Have A Dream” which he delivered on Aug. 28, 1963.
Though King’s dream about people of different races and creeds being able to come together, for the most part, have come to fruition, the people in the crowd were still marching for equality and basic human rights: the freedom to marry whoever they chose, education equality, the right to not be profiled, jobs and freedom. And some South Floridians were there to march with them.
They also included Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla., and Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida state branch and the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP and Patrick Franklin, president/CEO of the Urban League of Palm Beach County.
Teaching youth the history of the civil rights movement is the pathway to a better future, said Franklin, explaining why he took his son Miles, 13, to the march.
“I don’t think we’ve done a great job of teaching our kids about our history,” Franklin said.
A local march commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march and rally in Washington, D.C. was held Saturday in West Palm Beach, sponsored by several organizations, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Coordinating Committee founded by executive director Edith Bush.
Bush said residents have to vote and fight laws that keep citizens from being a part to the justice systems.
“People are complacent. In Florida, we have got to continue to vote. We’ve got to register people to vote. That’s important,” Bush said. “Florida is the worst state to restore [voting] rights to felons. We have just got to do better than that.”
Wilson said she watched the live broadcast of the 1963 march and was captivated by King’s speech, which she described as “a call to action and a call for change,” she said in a statement. “While there is no doubt African Americans and other minorities have made tremendous gains, there is still much work to be done when it comes to equal access to education, affordable housing and especially economic inclusion.
“We were fighting for jobs then and we are still fighting for jobs now. Hopefully this commemorative march will be a wake-up call to Congress to act in the best interest of the people to get our economy up and running and put people back to work,” Wilson said.
Johnson also said the anniversary march comes at a time of an unfinished agenda.
“There is so much going on in the country, including so many jobs going to other countries. Looking at the generation I’m working with now, I’m wondering if they will have the opportunities I had,” Johnson said.
“When I was walking down, heading to the Lincoln Memorial, people were coming from everywhere — north, south, east and west. People came from everywhere. I saw so many things that were just slight modifications of what it was in 1963,” she said.
Johnson recalled signs being almost identical to those in ’63, the chants and the large number of people.
Nweze was proud over the number of people who showed up from South Florida.
“It was not an easy task. It was a long way, for many hours, and some people did not have a chance to go home before they got on the bus. That alone is a testament of their dedication and how important this march was,” Nweze said.
Nweze’s role was making sure that as many people from South Florida as possible were at the march and that those who couldn’t come participated in a virtual march. Miami-Dade’s NAACP chartered a bus in order to ensure there would be a local presence. Jayson Jackson, 13, grandson of Shirley Johnson, was also among them.
“It was very exciting, especially on the way back,” Jayson said.
After the march, he said the passengers were praying and singing the Negro spirituals Wade in the Water and We Shall Overcome, while each person went around and shared his or her experiences about the march.
“We had a lot of support. Our bus was filled to capacity. It was so exciting for me to know that my grandmother was there 50 years ago,” Jayson said.
He said he marched against the school to prison pipeline, stand-your-ground self-defense laws, and for juvenile justice and education equality. He said he is proud to be a third generation of the movement and that he will pass on this legacy to his kids and theirs.
The original march is credited with being the catalyst for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This time around, Shirley Johnson is hoping that this generation will have their demands met, as hers did.
“My generation, they knew without a shadow of a doubt that they were going to fight with everything they had in order to make changes. I did not feel that kind of urgency this time. Whatever we wanted, we knew we were going to get. I felt urgency, but not that kind,” Johnson said.
Kyoto Walker contributed to this report from West Palm Beach.