March on Washington 50th anniversary

Beaufort County residents hope King's 50-year-old dream still inspires change today

sbowman@islandpacket.comAugust 23, 2013 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 with then Penn Center executive director Courtney Siceloff , wife, Elizabeth, and son, John Siceloff, who now serves on the Board of Trustees, after a planning session for the historic march on Washington, D.C.

PHOTO BY DAVE DUFFIN — Courtesy of the Penn Center

Hilton Head Island resident Emory Campbell was 22 years old and living in Boston when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington.

The address came to be regarded as a great piece of American oratory, but Campbell's first impression upon watching replays on television was that King's message, rooted in nonviolence, lacked a sense of urgency.

Fifty years of hindsight has intensified Campbell's appreciation for the profundity of King's speech. He appreciates its origins, too. An early draft reportedly was crafted at Penn Center on St. Helena Island, where King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference planned the march and where Campbell later served a 22-year stint as executive director.

Two weeks of observances to recognize the 50th anniversary of the speech and the march begin Saturday, when thousands are expected to walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial.

They will retrace a path blazed by earlier activists, including many who gathered in secret on St. Helena to plan the march. Penn Center was one of the few places King could meet with other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference without being threatened or harmed.

"Crowds of people were coming to the area on those buses for those meetings and preparing for the march," said Victoria Smalls, director of history and culture at the center. "They called it getting ready for the fight, the fight for all those social justices, a peaceful and nonviolent fight."

King went to Washington that summer intent upon cashing a check from the "bank of justice," as he would say in his speech. He argued blacks deserved "the riches of freedom and security of justice," same as anyone else.

"We've had 50 years to make some gains, and I think some have been made since Dr. King's dream," said Campbell, now 71. "We can look now and see if that check has been fully cashed, and I don't think it has been."

Gaps in education, unemployment and incomes still exist between blacks and whites, Campbell said. He hopes this anniversary not only celebrates the march's history, but renews public interest in closing those gaps.

Smalls believes they might. She attended the 25th anniversary of the march when she was 18, and she said it was inspiring to see the diversity and how the change started in 1963 continued.

Saturday's march is billed as a National Action to Reclaim the Dream. A march on Wednesday is called the March for Jobs and Justice.

Hilton Head resident Zana B. Jones, now 65, was one of the estimated 250,000 people who participated in the original march in 1963. Just a 16-year-old high school student, she walked from her hometown in Maryland to the Capitol, their group growing larger and larger with each step, she recalls.

"That was such a rewarding experience for me," Jones said. "That will be a part of my life for the rest of my life."

Thomas Barnwell Jr., 78, of Hilton Head thinks the country has made a lot of progress since the first march in 1963, but like Campbell believes challenges remain.

"The impact is ongoing, but it takes time to change attitudes and feelings," said Barnwell, a former Penn Center staff member who was 28 at the time of the march.

Barnwell said that perhaps the most noticeable change in the half-century since the first march is the breadth of people and issues that will be involved in the upcoming events.

"When we talk about the march, it's not a matter of African-American issues anymore, it's a matter of people issues now," he said. "These are issues that affect all genders, classes, colors, religions, places around the globe -- it's everyone now."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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