From the range of voices that joined together Wednesday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it’s safe to say the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s celebrated “dream” of racial justice and equality from his famous speech that day remains vivid in the University of Virginia community.
At the same time, those voices concurred that the dream is far from fulfilled 50 years later.
To mark the occasion of the 1963 March on Washington, the University held two events: U.Va.’s Office of the Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity hosted “Let Freedom Ring at U.Va.,” in the Rotunda Dome Room; and later, the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies held an event with more than 30 participants expressing ways to revitalize the purpose of King’s speech, which emphasized the need for jobs and justice.
At the “Let Freedom Ring” event, the program brought together undergraduate and graduate students from the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy to reflect on the march and King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.
Music from the 1960s echoed through the Dome Room as students, faculty and community members settled in to hear their remarks. Dr. Marcus Martin, U.Va.’s vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, opened with a brief history of King as a leader and political activist in the Civil Rights Movement.
Claudrena Harold, associate professor in the Corcoran Department of History, also reflected on King’s life and legacy.
“King’s vision of freedom at both the individual and collective level was expansive,” she said.
Students then read excerpts from King’s speech and reflected on the implications of his vision for justice, equality and freedom.
Shermaine Jones, a doctoral student in the English department, discussed the influence of King’s faith on his work. “Martin Luther King’s boldness was grounded in faith,” Jones said. “It behooves us to speak into existence the community Dr. King imagined,” she said.
Sheridan Fuller, a graduate student in the Batten School, described the March on Washington as a “defining moment and a transformational movement” that “cannot be seen as only relevant to the black community.”
Other student participants included Charlie Tyson, Dana Cypress, Comfort Allotey and Ravynn Stringfield, all undergraduates in the College; and Tamika Y. Richeson, a doctoral student in history.
The program culminated at 3 p.m. with the pealing of the bells at the University Chapel, part of a global remembrance commemorating the March on Washington.
At the later gathering, held in the auditorium of the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, participants offered their interpretations of King’s speech in any format they choose – in spoken words, song, dance and instrumental performance. In addition to short speeches and personal reminiscences, some people performed jazz, gospel, hip hop, poetry and drama.
Charlottesville Vice Mayor Kristen Szakos told the story of her father going to the 1963 protest and how it changed him. He took a faculty job at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where Kristen grew up. She attended Saturday’s anniversary march in Washington, she said, and “the only problem was there wasn’t enough singing.” She then led the crowd in singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
It wasn’t the only time that song rose Wednesday afternoon. A student group that met just last week to practice for the event, the Freedom Revival Experimental Ensemble – or FREE – performed a multimedia interpretation with clips of film of the march and audio recordings of protest songs. Playing different characters, they gave responses to what had changed and not changed in American society from 50 years ago. The students wore black T-shirts emblazoned with the words “R U Free,” and led the audience in chants and song.
Deborah McDowell, director of the Woodson Institute and Alice Griffin Professor of English, put the day’s goals in context by telling about A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize the black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union in 1925. He also helped organize the March on Washington in 1963.
Emma Edmunds, a U.Va. director in strategic communications who led a project recovering the civil rights history of her hometown, Danville, described what happened after the March on Washington. King and other civil rights leaders had planned marches in other cities and met in Danville to make plans, but other events eclipsed the idea – the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Wednesday’s speakers focused on parts of King’s speech, using the occasion to do more than reiterate his famous lines of not judging people “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” They reviewed the state of poverty and the economy, education and work in today’s society and also mentioned the University’s efforts and shortcomings in those areas.
If people emphasized the first two-thirds of King’s speech, said English professor Susan Fraiman – a member of the Living Wage campaign – it might have been memorialized as “The Island of Poverty” speech or the “No, No, We are Not Satisfied” speech.
Sociology professor Sabrina Pendergrass reminded the audience of King’s metaphor that the protesters in Washington had come to cash “a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” as King said before observing, “America had given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Other participants included Frank Dukes, director of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation, based in the School of Architecture, and executive director of University and Community Action for Racial Equity; U.Va. students from Black Voices chorus; Assistant Dean Dion Lewis of the Office of African-American Affairs; Leah Puryear, director of Upward Bound; Jim Bundy of Sojourners United Church of Christ; Rev. Hodari Hamilton; and M. Rick Turner, president of the Charlottesville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
At the end of the FREE performance, local actor Richard Cooper played the part of A. Philip Randolph, who read aloud a pledge at the 1963 protest. The attendees on Wednesday were invited to affirm it verbally, repeating, “I do pledge,” and to sign a sheet to put it in writing. Part of it reads:
“I affirm my complete personal commitment for the struggle for jobs and freedom for all Americans. To fulfill that commitment, I pledge that I will not relax until victory is won. ... I pledge my heart and my mind and my body unequivocally and without regard to personal sacrifice, to the achievement of social peace through social justice.”
(Student writer Dana Cypress also contributed to this report.)