It has been 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital and shared his dream of equality in America, where children could grow up and be judged by their character not their skin.
The country has come a long way since then, but still has a long way to go, many in Washington said on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington, when he famously delivered his “I have a dream” speech. Many in Sampson County reflected on the anniversary and agreed, while significant strides have been made toward the realization of King’s dream, it was still a journey in progress.
“To me, it meant freedom,” Patty Cherry said of King’s message. “That we were going to be able to do some of the things that others were already doing. When Dr. King marched, he did it so we could have that freedom. He wanted to open up doors. There are some doors that have been opened to us, not only myself but to others, but there are still some that are not open.”
Cherry helped co-found the Clinton-Sampson Chamber of Commerce’s Multicultural Committee and its annual MLK Celebration, held each year in January. She said it is a “wonderful feeling” to be able to remember the man whose impact on the Civil Rights Movement is still felt across every valley and mountain of the nation today.
“It is wonderful to be able to remember Dr. King and honor his legacy,” said Cherry. “We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
Wednesday officially marks the 50th anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that drew some 250,000 to the National Mall and ushered in the idea of massive, nonviolent demonstrations. In his speech, King called for an end to racism in the United States and described his dreams of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred, widely considered a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement.
“As an 8-year-old female in a segregated school in 1963 Garland, I remember the inequality as vividly as I remember the March on Washington,” said Garland mayor Winifred Hill Murphy.
She recalled her most favorite activity after school — going to a local store to get a fountain drink, only to be accosted by a group of older girls calling her names. Many other girls and boys of color across the nation, along with adults, were being subjected to similar torture.
“I was petrified, but silently endured and was too afraid to tell my mother,” said Murphy. “Now, as the first female and first African American mayor for the town of Garland, I am extremely thankful for the pioneers who sacrificed so much to obtain equal rights for all citizens. I am thankful for the love and fellowship amongst most citizens in Garland 50 years later.”
Murphy said she was happy with the progress that has been made, but, like Cherry, is aware that leaders and those in the communities must continue to be vigilant to ensure that Garland, as well as the rest of Sampson County, “is representative of equality and economic freedom for all.”
Cherry said she remembered her mother praying that King would accomplish what he set out to do.
“She wanted him to do it, not only for some people, but for all people,” said Cherry. “What she experienced she did not want us to have to endure.”
Tens of thousands of people marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and down the National Mall this past Saturday, commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s famous speech and pledging that his dream includes equality for gays, Latinos, the poor and the disabled.
The event was an homage to a generation of activists that endured fire hoses, police abuse and indignities to demand equality for African Americans. But there was a strong theme of unfinished business.
“This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration,” said Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the slain civil rights leader. “Nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more.”
N.C. Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, was a student at North Carolina A&T in 1960 and had the opportunity to hear one of King’s speeches at Bennett College, just a short distance away from A&T in Greensboro.
“He moved the student body so much I saw football players shedding tears,” said Bell. “He was just that inspirational.”
Bell, now a seven-term N.C. House Representative and former Sampson County Schools superintendent, met King as a college student on that day in Greensboro and shook his hand.
“At that time he was not as popular as he became,” said Bell. “That was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. We had just had a sit-in in Greensboro at Woolworth’s store and he was a part of that. It always had an impact on me — his speech then and then the speech at the March on Washington.”
Bell said he’ll never forget that short encounter with King. Just a few short years later, King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a quarter of a million people and relayed his dream.
“It’s for us to carry out that dream,” Bell said. “He is the dreamer, but we are the ones who have to make that dream become a reality. I think we have done that over the years and I think it’s evident in the fact that we have a President of the United States — everyone emphasizes the fact that he is black, but he is also white; he is multiracial. I think it’s very significant that we emphasize that, because (King) was talking about all of us coming together as one nation. I think that’s what Martin Luther King’s dream was all about.”
Realizing that dream should be a constant aim, Bell said.
“It’s an ongoing thing,” he said. “It doesn’t come to an end. It has to continue to be something for us to strive for. It is not something that will happen in 2013, then it’s over. It is something we have to strive for daily.”
Eric Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, said he would not be in office, nor would Barack Obama be president, without those who marched.
“They marched in spite of animosity, oppression and brutality because they believed in the greatness of what this nation could become and despaired of the founding promises not kept,” Holder said.
Holder mentioned gays and Latinos, women and the disabled as those who had yet to fully realize King’s dream.
Coming from New Jersey on a bus that day in August 1963, Bell could not stop. He said he would not be able to make the 50th anniversary event either, but hoped there would be young people — much like himself back in the early 1960s — who would make a constant effort to fight for equality in a non-violent way.
“I’m too old to be walking in that crowd,” said Bell. “I think it’s a call for the young people. I think now it’s time for this new generation to work together in a multiracial fashion … and do things not because of anything racial, but because it is the right thing to do.”
Following Saturday’s march, today, on the day of the anniversary, President Barack Obama will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He will be joined by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Churches and groups have been asked to ring bells at 3 p.m. Wednesday, marking the exact time King spoke.
Cherry said the doctor’s words still resonate half a century later.
“We are in different times now. People are opening doors now and they see that we are pretty much all the same,” said Cherry. “Things are getting better. It is slow, but it is sure. But I’m very sure that one day, as Dr. King said, all of us will join hands.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press also contributed to this article.