Column: Marching on Washington
This ‘n’ That
By Ernie Pitt
I really and honestly thought that on that steamy hot afternoon at the Washington Monument in August of 1963 that I had seen the beginning of a new world order. As a 17-year-old junior at Dudley High School in Greensboro, this day was, I thought, the most important event that I would ever see in my lifetime. Indeed, it was and still is, although President Obama’s victory is right up there.
I remember that was the day my closest friend and comrade and I had been waiting for. We donned our brand-spanking-new sport coats; his was gold and mine was blue. We had on new shoes, ascot ties and newly-purchased trousers. This was a moment that we knew would be special in so many ways. Not because we thought we were the cleanest two dudes on the National Mall, but because of the magnitude of the crowd and all of the celebrities we were surrounded by.
We stood next to NBA legend Bill Russell. We almost broke our necks looking up at him. I was 6′3″, but it didn’t matter. He was tall as the monument itself.
My friend and I had been working in the Civil Rights Movement in Greensboro, even though we were still in high school. We used to meet at a Bennett College professor’s house and strategize our boycotts of K&W, which were then segregated. Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond — two of the Greensboro/A&T four — were our idols at the time. We used to watch them go to school at A&T with their briefcases proudly swinging back and forth. It was great. We wanted to be just like Ezell because he lived on our side of town.
Jesse Jackson was A&T’s student government president and the star quarterback on the football team. Even then, he was a great orator and we all listened to every word he said. He was so pointed and unafraid.
At one rally, Jackson tried successfully to get the students to march downtown even though it might mean some would not graduate on time. He clearly articulated the choice of being free or being a college grad. It was a tough decision for many, and some chose to graduate and others, like my buddy and me, chose to march. We were both arrested for trespassing and thrown into a makeshift jail at a rest home. But, we weren’t goin’ to turn back … we were gonna keep on walkin’… keep on talkin’… and, keep on marchin’.
We knew we had made the right decision as we stood with the thousands of others at the March on Washington. As we finally got to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I thought then that he was probably 50-years-old by the way he carried himself. (In fact, he was just in his early 30s.) This undoubtedly was the greatest man on the face of the earth. Even though we had seen him at rallies in Greensboro, we had not seen him in quite the light that we saw him on this day. It was the most thrilling and fulfilling thing I had ever seen. It was life-changing.
I never thought nor did I ever consider the fact that I would not be young for the rest of my life. So, as I ponder events half a century ago, I can only scratch my head and think about how long ago that was. Yet, we’re still fighting that same battle that we thought we’d won that day. Neighborhoods are still mostly segregated, as are churches and schools. African Americans are still discriminated against; our young men are killed at will; and all of the laws of this great nation still make blacks vulnerable.
Fifty years is a long time, but apparently not long enough.
Ernie Pitt is the publisher and co-founder of The Chronicle.