A Journey through the Ghosts of Civil Rights Martyrs Past to the March on Washington
In 1983, Kevin Shay was one of 60 Texas residents who took a 60-hour bus ride through the Deep South to Washington, D.C., and back, attending the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington. That march was the largest of the regular commemorative marches for the original in 1963 that featured Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There was one in D.C. this past weekend, as well, during this anniversary, even though most commemorative marches occur every five to ten years. This is an account of the 1983 journey, first published in a Dallas paper back then, with updates to tie it to current events.
Friday, Aug. 26, 1983. 5 a.m.
Up late last night as usual. Somehow locate the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and see the bus from the corner of an eye. U-turn it like Starsky & Hutch before they got canned. Sleepily stumble into line. Greeted by cool, almost suspicious eyes, undoubtedly wondering why a 6–7 Caucasian man would want to attend this revival of their late civil rights hero’s dream. Shay wonders why, too. It’ll be interesting to find out why folks are here. To make sure their Dream Deferred doesn’t become a Raisin in the Sun?
Local trip leader Gene Lantz, a 42-year-old, tall, bearded factory worker, union organizer, and civil rights activist, insists that bus riders aren’t living in the past. “Sure, they still have dreams, but we’re here to work towards making those dreams even more of a reality,” he explains. “Just the fact they are here right now, that we got 60 people from this conservative area to go on such a bus ride, shows us that our area is not insensitive to the civil rights causes and the needs of the poor.”
That number is out of a region housing well over two million people. And some people are from College Station, not just the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Still, that is better than in 1963 when only a handful from this region witnessed King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Someone asks for volunteers to ride and help drive a 10-person van. Shay answers the call. Never could stand the crowdedness of a bus. Too many bad memories of high school and college hoops road trips in hot, putrid buses. But they were better than what the 1961 Freedom Bus Riders faced, when participants were beaten almost to death in Deep South cities and buses set on fire.
Only 30 minutes behind schedule, we take off. Bus driver Rocket Ricky, knowing he has a contract and schedule to keep or he won’t get paid, sets the tone, pushing his crate 85 mph on the highway. Elaine Lantz, partner of Gene who works in the same electronics plant, frantically tries to keep up, vainly asking Ricky through the citizens band radio to slow down.
Shay smiles in the passenger side seat, sits back and relaxes. Just another trip. If we crash, if we’re stupid enough to die for this cause before we even get there, how important exactly would that cause be? Can’t answer that so early in the morning.
Over the Texas border into Louisiana, riders stir from uneasy slumber to make small talk. Fellow writer Mike McKinnon, a sharp, 20-something who once worked for a government-sponsored television show that was victimized by Reagan’s budget cuts, asks why Shay’s doing this.
Sits back, reflecting. “I’m a writer in search of that elusive, pot-of-gold story. This seems as good a place as any to find it.” Smile. “‘Course, I believe in the cause, as long as it’s what it’s supposed to be — one for more jobs, peace, and freedom for all. That is what it’s about, isn’t it?” Laughs. This is 1983, four months till 1984. Has the reality behind the American Dream ever really coincided with lofty ideals that are so easily said, never to be accomplished? Some say at 24, Shay is too young to be so cynical. They are right, of course. Sarcasm is his shield.
Mike nods. “I guess that’s why I’ m here, also. Maybe we’ll find out what all this dreaming’s about, how much of it is for real.” He sits back, reading over notes and articles. Shay goes back to looking out the window, trying to keep tabs on the bus that’s a dot on the horizon.
Jennifer Eppler, an organizer from the local chapter of peace organization War Resisters League, takes wheel. Talks about how this contingent was set up. The hassles involved just in getting this small group together. The delegation of responsibility that few wanted to share. The money to raise, as more than half the people are here due to funds donated by kind souls who couldn’t make the trip.
“What’s the actual purpose of this trip in your view?” Shay asks more out of boredom than duty.
Jennifer is prepared. “We want people to be aware of these causes and show them there are people out there who still think about other things than making bombs and blowing up people.” As if people have to be shown that. While some do, many come up with excuses to justify bomb making. They mostly come down to fear and money.
Ask if anyone on this trip was there when King spoke about his dreams two decades before. Learns that 70-year-old retired teacher Lena Hodge was. She had flown to D.C. in 1963 and at one point shook hands with King, who had spoken eight months earlier to a crowd of about 4,000 in Dallas, despite a bomb threat that delayed the speech. Among those who greeted the civil rights martyr outside the Dallas Fair Park Music Hall were about 200 white protesters, some of whom screamed that King was a commie.
Jimmy Robinson, member of the far-right National States Rights Party and KKK who carried a Confederate flag and rifle to intimidate blacks, told a media outlet that evening the group was not there to start trouble, just to oppose King’s work. In the next two years, Robinson would set a burning cross on a Jewish Holocaust survivor’s front lawn and physically attack King in a Selma, Ala., hotel. Among those who would stop Robinson’s attack on King was long-time Georgia Rep. John Lewis.
By then, King had already faced numerous assassination plots at the hands of such racists, some of which had been aborted by the FBI using KKK informants. That night in Dallas, King had urged that sacrifices be made in the struggle for equality and justice. The cause could cause loss of employment, even lives. “If a man has not found something worth dying for, he isn’t fit to live,” he had shouted before appealing for a nonviolent approach in which people could still “love the segregationist.”
In her brief exchange in August 1963, Hodge had asked King to return to Dallas. He had replied that he was “coming to see aaaaall of you.” But he wouldn’t make it back to Dallas.
Fifteen years after another plot succeeded in killing King in Memphis, we are driving towards the belly of the beast. But not Memphis. We are taking a more southern route that is about 100 miles longer through cities where King and other civil rights advocates did much of their work. Ask Jennifer why we are taking the longer route. She shrugs, “Ricky’s driving.” Maybe Ricky has a plan. Maybe he knows that the southern route with its lower elevation and fewer mountains to cross is better on gas mileage for a large bus. Maybe he figures it’s fitting on this journey to drive through the sites of civil rights struggles past.
Pass through Jackson, capital of Mississippi. Two months before King’s D.C. address, NAACP local leader Medgar Evers, who had campaigned in Jackson for years to integrate buses, schools, the state fair, and parks, was assassinated by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith as he exited his car in front of his house in broad daylight. The Klansman used a rifle to shoot him from a site across the street. Evers’ usual FBI and police escorts had suddenly gone MIA that day, causing some to speculate about a plot.
Over the CB radio, a device we used back in the 1970s and 1980s to communicate between vehicles before cell phones arrived, Ricky notes that Jackson was the city where Evers was shot. “Our schedule doesn’t allow us to stop,” he apologizes. “But this is also the place where the Freedom Riders were forced to stop.” Jackson officials arrested several hundred riders in that 1961 action, effectively keeping them from reaching their goal destination of New Orleans. Many were sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary to be placed in the Death Row unit and issued only underwear while taking away their bedding. Through such painful pursuits, they soon caused the buses and stations to be integrated.
We drive by the county jail and other drab buildings. In 2017, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum would open here. But Jackson’s downtown looks fairly empty and uninviting.
Down the road, we stop at a truck stop in Meridian. Civil rights martyr James Chaney was born here and found dead, buried in a nearby earthen dam in 1964. Chaney and fellow civil rights workers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman had organized voter registration drives, participated in various demonstrations, and investigated a nearby black church bombing.
One night, Sheriff’s Deputy Cecil Price arrested Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner for an alleged traffic violation and jailed them. After they were released and on their way back to Meridian, they were stopped by a patrol vehicle and two cars full of KKK members. They shot them to death, and even chain-whipped and castrated Chaney, before burying them. It took more than a month to unearth the bodies. Eventually, eight Klansmen were found guilty of various charges.
Some two decades later, Shay asks Larry Egbert Jr., a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, how taking this journey helped keep alive the work of civil rights advocates like Chaney. The mission is more of a way to make a statement with others and get more inspired to continue working for said causes, he says, as vehicles whiz down the highway in the background.
“I really don’t expect anything politically to come of the march itself. But the energy created, the awareness of those goals, can help bring them about in the future.” Egbert, a board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility and volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, would continue to go beyond such activity, being arrested during anti-nuclear weapons protests and cycling hundreds of miles to call an end to the Cold War arms race.
Back on the road. Deep voices with unmistakable Southern accents dominate the CB, issuing racist remarks, undoubtedly sparked by the sign on the bus proclaiming, “March for Jobs, Peace, & Freedom — Texas.” One voice is particularly spiteful: “What’re you nig — — and nig — — lovers marching for jobs for? Why don’t you go out and work like everyone else, instead of sitting around complaining about no jobs and collecting unemployment?”
Ricky has let numerous similar comments slide. But like most, he has a breaking point. You can only sit there and take abuse for so long before fighting back. “We tired of working for you, honky,” I hear Ricky say in a firm voice. “We too smart for that. We want our fair share.” The racist has no response. Cries of “Right on, Ricky!” erupt throughout the van and bus.
Pass through Birmingham. Old streets. Dusty houses. Black kids playing basketball on worn courts with rusty hoops and no nets in 100-degree heat. Downtown cultural center looks like it needs substantial renovations.
View the county jail where King wrote the stirring “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963 while contained therein for nonviolently protesting, displaying to law enforcement authorities that they could cage his physical embodiment, but not his spirit. A car honks at the bus, and a black power fist shoots out.
The 16th Street Baptist Church stands proudly, defiantly, its Romanesque and Byzantine design contrasting with simpler-styled surrounding structures. Dating to the 1870s, the first black church in Birmingham was the site of a horrific bombing in 1963 that killed four young girls and injured more than a dozen others. Three of the four Klansmen held responsible were ultimately found guilty, with the fourth dying by the time justice arrived. While the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, with a museum and research center, would open in 1992, a public Confederate memorial in the city would not be removed until 2020.
Survey the bus station where in 1961, Freedom Riders were viciously beaten by KKK types wielding baseball bats, chains, and iron pipes, as law enforcement officials watched. James Peck, who was arrested more than 60 times while participating in various demonstrations through the 1980s, required more than 50 stitches to close head wounds. The first hospital he was taken to refused to treat him.
The story of bloodshed for the cause was similar in Montgomery, some 90 miles to the south. Alabama’s capital, which would erect the National Lynching Memorial in 2018, was also the site of some famed marches, including one from Selma in 1965 referred to as “Bloody Sunday” that helped pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Pass through Anniston, another town where the Freedom Riders faced a bloody confrontation that included the bus being firebombed. The racist mob held the bus doors shut, intending to let those inside burn to death. But an undercover investigator with a gun or an exploding fuel tank allowed them to escape. Authorities let the mob beat riders, but as some prepared to lynch participants, warning shots fired in the air by highway patrolmen put a halt to that plan. That site would be marked by a monument in 2017.
Pondering the violence, Shay is not sure he could sit there and take being beaten. You really have to possess a higher calling to withstand that. But you can’t fight back or the racists would really kill you and others. You have to stand there and take the abuse. It sickens Shay and drives him onward.
Drive through Georgia’s capital without stopping at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the site of his tomb, the home where he lived as a boy, and Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached. Have a schedule to keep and a long night through Georgia and the Carolina’s. Freedom Riders avoided violence for the most part in this area, though Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill, S.C., and many were arrested in other cities.
Saturday, Aug. 27, 1983. 5 a.m.
A full 24 hours after we started, Shay finally gets to take the van wheel to relieve the boredom of sitting. Did get at least two hours of loose sleep. Rocket’s pushing 85 again. Have to focus while trying not to doze off.
The sun rises about halfway through North Carolina. Mind gets to playing funny tricks and thinking of odd things when the body’s been resting in one place for so long. Wonder what would happen if one small pothole is hit, sending this van careening to disaster. Would headlines read, “Civil Rights Activists Die Driving for Cause?” That might be a new one.
“You feel okay?” Jennifer’s sleepy voice interrupts my daydream or nightmare.
“Oh yeah, sure,” Shay assures her. “I could go on for hours.” So, he does. Driving does relieve some boredom. Being responsible for more people’s lives than just your own can be a thrilling experience. It can also be a headache.
Stop for gas south of Petersburg, Va., site of a key Civil War battle. “Man, you were really slidin’ and glidin’ on that trip,” Shay greets Ricky, repeating his usual retort to those who tell him to slow down.
“Gotta make up for lost time,” he smiles. “Gotta get y’all to the march on time.”
Mike takes over for final haul to Shay’s birthplace. Ricky immediately rockets outasight. Traffic heavy for early morning. Mike makes valiant effort to keep up with bus, blinking lights to get slowpokes out of his way.
“Mike, you ever drive an ambulance?” Jennifer pipes up. “This is sure a thrilling ride.” Nervous laughter. Mike barely smiles, immersed in the mission.
Somehow catches up to Rocket 15 miles outside D.C. Has it made till Rocket whips over two lanes making a sudden exit. Mike has no choice but to stay on main highway. All that work catching up for naught. To see it slip away at last moment. There’s a lesson, a truth, there somewhere, but most are too weary to seek it.
Park and walk to subway station, after telling Ricky our plans through the CB. Mike still searching for runaway bus in dark subway tunnel. Try to cheer him up. “Damn, I came so close, all that effort for nothing,” he looked away toward the pitch-blackness of the tunnel.
Away from the subway, we near the National Mall. The Washington Monument is the most visible landmark, along with the Capitol building and Smithsonian museums. Bearded activists and students representing some of the more than 700 groups here hand out leaflets on no nukes, getting out of El Salvador, boycotting GE products, and more. A man throws a Yahweh Hebrew Israelites handbill to the ground. The volunteer picks it back up from the littered cement and hands it to someone else.
Enter the mass confusion of the march. Not sure where we are going. People walk in all directions, stop, slow down, block each other’s paths. Still, most are considerate, letting those pass before them, trying to stay in some semblance of a line.
Postal Union workers shout, “Ronald Reagan, he’s no good! Send him back to Hollywood!” Many laugh. Shay stops to tell one unionist that Reagan is already near there, safely in his California retreat.
“Coward,” the man snorts. “He’s out only for his own kind — the rich. He wants us poor working slobs to stay in our assigned places.” The man is making more than $11 per hour, about four times the minimum wage and probably more than most people at this march. But it’s still not near what the power elite make. The ratio of CEO salary to average worker would increase from 20 to 1 in 1965 to 58 to 1 by 1989. By 2018, CEOs would make an astronomical 278 times more than a typical employee.
Wade through mass of people, waving at Jennifer, Lawrence, social worker Pat Pomarici, and others who are holding a sign saying, “Dallas Seeks the Wisdom of MLK JR.” Have to get out of crowd. Getting crowdaphobia. Reach side of street to join photographers, some standing on fire hydrants, others climbing trees and telephone poles. Snap pictures like history is rolling by, and we need a reminder that we were there.
March stalls again. Many sing, “Amen.” Some continue to chant anti-Reagan slogans. “Man, Reagan’s got to hear us out, now,” an African-American youth says loudly. Shay informs him that Reagan is 3,000 miles away. “Oh well, he’s still going to hear from us. Someone will tell him,” he retorts.
Police on horses gallop by. One stops and smiles as he talks with a demonstrator. Few in crowd seem overly fanatical. Content to shout slogans and hold signs. “Is this march going to change anything?” Shay asks a young guy with a sign saying, “Martin Luther King Jr. did not die in vain.”
“Maybe not directly,” he replies. “But it’s better than not being here. This march is something. Just look at all these people.”
Return to mass of people after discovering that the van group had reunited with the bus group. Walk along the reflecting pool leading to the Lincoln Memorial, where speakers start to assemble. Some cool off in the pool. One man yells at those holding our sign, “Dallas — home of Cocaine Cowboys.” More laughter.
NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks is talking about putting Reagan on notice. “We are not here to live in the past and leave here simply singing, ‘We shall overcome.’ We are here because we are committed to the elimination of Reaganism from the face of the Earth.”
More speakers try to match the intensity of King’s 1963 speech, falling short with phrases such as “I have a vision” and “the dream is still alive.” One by one, icons Coretta Scott King, Rev. Joseph Lowery, John Lewis, Dick Gregory, Sammy Davis Jr., Julian Bond, Andrew Young step forward to speak on the event’s theme of “Jobs, Peace, and Freedom.” Free at last,” is the conclusion of several speakers, echoing King.
Bond, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960 who left college to lead civil rights actions and was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1969, would tell a reporter that the 1983 event is bigger and more inclusive. Young, a close King associate who had become Atlanta mayor in 1982, would note that activists have moved from the streets to City Hall. “We’ve been fighting police brutality,” he says. “We still have those same dreams.”
Gregory, the comedian and civil rights champion involved in everything from finding the Meridian civil rights martyr’s bodies to uncovering King’s assassination plot, is more frank than most. “Don’t compare this march to 20 years ago,” he says. “When we came then, most of us were scared. We came to ask others to take care of our business. Now, we’re here to take care of our own business.”
While inspiring in parts, can only listen to so much of that. Walk through the diverse crowd, amazed that people seem calm, even when they have to wait in line for 30 minutes to buy a soft drink. A mere 25 arrests would be reported in D.C. this day, most for street vending without a license. People try to listen to the words, catch a glimpse of the utopian visions. Come Monday morning, those who have one will return to their back-breaking jobs, getting someone else wealthy. The unemployment rate is at 9 percent, better than the previous year when it reached almost 11 percent. It would fall to 7 percent by late 1984 and below 6 percent in 1987. But a job is just a job. People need a passion, a mission, to rise above the mundane.
“Our day has come!” thunders Rev. Jesse Jackson, who participated in demonstrations to open public libraries to blacks and more in his native South Carolina in the early 1960s and later worked closely with King. If anyone here could come close to King’s oratory skills, it is him. In 1984, he would place third in Democratic presidential primaries behind Walter Mondale and Gary Hart and rise to second in 1988, behind only Michael Dukakis. “We must march on, dream on, march on! Don’t let them break your spirit! From the outhouse to the statehouse to the courthouse to the White House, we will march on!”
Many in the reported crowd of 250,000 that stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument raised their fists and cheered.
Try to push past security guards at press tent to get closer to speakers and maybe ask a few more questions. Guard glances at Shay’s Park Cities News media pass. “Sorry, you have to have a special media pass.”
“And where do I get such a pass?”
“You had to have gotten it beforehand.” Walk away. Better to mix with the masses.
Stand in a drink line. Some try to butt in front, as others motion for them to get to the line’s end. A few succeed. There are always those who take shortcuts. Exasperated counter workers try to maintain control, a hopeless task in the 95-degree heat and smothering humidity.
Finally get to front of line. A young black man approaches Shay to ask if he can get him some drinks. Glances at his face and the long line. Wants to help him but finally decides he cannot. “It wouldn’t be fair to all those behind me. Sorry.” He walks away, dejected. In the next moment, the man in front of Shay lets a guy butt in line.
A black youth walks through the crowd, yelling, “I don’t see no applications! Where’s the jobs? Looks like I’ll have to stick somebody up to get some money.” The crowd steers clear, letting him pass. The African-American jobless rate has always been higher than other racial groups. Yet, many don’t see a problem with that. Many blame mostly Blacks themselves.
Finds Pat under the shade of a tree. She is one of some 600 marchers treated for heat exhaustion. People offer apples, which are hungrily, eagerly, gobbled up. “That’s the first thing I’ve had to eat all day,” sighs Pat. Shay’s stomach signals likewise. In the excitement and energy of the march, we had not found much to eat. We survive on something beyond food.
Inez Reyes, another Dallas marcher, joins us. She talks about retiring on a Hawaiian island as she massages Pat’s feet. Barely hear the rest of speeches as we analyze why people are here. A man approaches, suggesting something off-color to Inez, who tells him to get lost. Shay motions at him to do the same. “I’ll see you all again,” he says in leaving.
Join rest of group close to the reflecting pool. Stevie Wonder hushes crowd with latest rendition, talking over the purported sound of a heartbeat about the need for people to unite in peace and brotherhood. Conciliatory statements, nothing new, but coming from a blind singing superstar, maybe they can get through to people better than preaching and long-winded speeches.
Many in the crowd join hands as the 11-hour program concludes with a tape-recording of King’s 17-minute 1963 speech. The words spoken at this site that year in front of some 250,000 people seem revolutionary for their time in the darkest midst of Jim Crow racism, as many civil rights advocates remained captive in Deep South jails. One hundred years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro still is not free,” King notes. “We have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note.”
The 1983 crowd — like the 1963 one — stands silent, hushed, straining to drink in the calls to remain nonviolent in actions. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Remaining peaceful does not mean being weak, he exclaims. Persistence is a virtue. “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
As the words parade through attendees minds, some stifle tears, others let them fall, recalling the violent fate King would face five years after that address and the cruelty of dreams deferred. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The speech ends, but many do not want to leave, even those who have been there with little food in the heat for almost 12 hours. For a moment, black, white, brown, red, yellow alike blend into an effervescent rainbow of hope and goodwill that illuminates over the city, making previous trials and hardships to reach this place seem trivial. For a moment, you could believe in King’s dream, even if it would yet to really be reached in 2020, when upwards of 100,000 people would gather at this spot in the midst of a global pandemic and confrontative social justice demonstrations, inspired by King’s son to keep working for equality and justice in the face of continued police brutality, racism, and Trumpian corruption.
Shay walks alone back to the bus and van, stopping to snap pictures, as if the camera could catch lost dreams and hopes. “Aren’t you glad you came?” Gene cheerfully greets marchers at the bus.
Two Texas participants still missing. Mrs. Hodge is in a D.C. hospital due to heat exhaustion, while another member accompanies her. She had fainted as she crowded towards the Lincoln Memorial to obtain a better view. “I will never forget how kind everybody was,” she would later say. “I threatened to sue them if they didn’t let me out. They kept me anyhow, and I’m glad they did.”
No one at the bus knows where she is, so Gene, Elaine, Jennifer, and some others volunteer to remain behind with the van to wait. After showering at a local church gymnasium, Texas participants get back on the bus.
Shay joins them, wanting to hear fresh reactions from participants on what they have seen. Most are too weary to think, let alone talk about the experience. Clarice Bates, a West Dallas community leader, had carried dirt here contaminated from a lead smelter, dumping it among the D.C. grounds. The lead smelters had been allowed to pollute residents’ air, water, and soil since the 1940s. Officials with one would agree in 1985 to pay 370 families a total of $20 million in a legal settlement. The last smelter would not be closed until 1990.
“It is nice to see people come together in a big, large number like that, and be on one accord and agree on things,” she says. “It was just wonderful to be in on something that should go down in history.”
There would be other commemorative marches for the 1963 original, usually scheduled every five years. But none would be near as big as this one. If commemorative marches are historical, this one deserved to be in that boat as much as any.
Sunday, Aug. 28, 1983. 12:01 a.m.
Bus is quiet, with only a few complaining about aches and hunger. Try to settle down the mind and sleep but can only doze off in spurts.
What seems like a day later, a bright sun greets us at a stop in Greensboro, N.C., where demonstrators successfully integrated Woolworth’s lunch counters in 1960, where protesters — many with the Communist Party — clashed with white supremacists in a “Death to the Klan” march. During violence at the latter, Klan and American Nazi Party members killed five marchers and wounded several more. Some marchers carried guns, and at least one Klan member was wounded in return fire after a KKK member fired first. No one would be brought to justice, as two juries would acquit all right-wing defendants. A civil lawsuit led by the Christic Institute would find eight white supremacists liable, resulting in a $351,000 settlement. A private commission’s report would conclude that Klan and ANP members planned to injure protesters and the police department colluded with Klan members to allow the violence.
Over fast food, Shay discusses the march with fellow Dallas Advocate writer Gary Cooper, former Tennessee reporter Lee Olson, and others. We view a New York Times story that claims 200,000 at the march, which would be later changed to at least 250,000, roughly the same as the 1963 demonstration. A Washington Post story details how the 1,500 buses that arrived in D.C. is about the same number as in 1963. While there are fewer “freedom trains” this time, more local residents participate.
Gary notes how few black families live in the University Park burb where he grew up. “Attitudes have loosened in the past few years,” he explains. “When I was going to school [in the mid-1970s], there was only one black student at Highland Park High. And he was really harassed. Now, more people seem to accept blacks in the community more.”
Shay nods, adding that there were maybe 50 black students at Lake Highlands High in northeast Dallas when he went there during the same time. “Not many white students talked with them. There was a black section in the cafeteria and a white section. I played basketball and befriended several black teammates. I would drive them home to their segregated neighborhood after practice. But some still called blacks the n-word. I would tell them not to say that, but I probably wasn’t as forceful as I should have been.” The school Latin Club back then even held slave auctions as fundraisers with some dressed in blackface. Those have finally stopped.
Olson talks about his journey from mainstream reporter to socialist activist. Shay hears him out, knowing there is good and bad in all political systems, wondering if there could be a system that only take the good parts out of each. Another pipe dream.
More light sleep, as political talk provides a backdrop. One young Caucasian woman states that she didn’t really get to meet any black people on this trip. Shay looks around at the bus filled with African Americans, resisting the urge to ask whose fault that was. Someone has to take the initiative, the first step.
Back in Birmingham for a chicken dinner. Shay breaks the ice with some African-American students around his age by discussing the Cowboys and Mavericks. That allows inroads to other topics. Some say the trip is worthwhile, though reasons remain cloudy, which is understandable. It’s hard to define a social action that just occurred in words. Time will tell its significance.
“It’s something to tell my grandkids about, if we hold it together that long,” one says. As of 2020, that statement remains the best one-sentence summation of the experience.
Monday, Aug. 29, 1983. 12:30 a.m.
At Louisiana truck stop, speak with KKDA news director Marina Coker. Says numerous people seems to have gone on the march for more personal reasons, to see what it would be like. “Isn’t that interesting?” she smiles. Bus won’t start, and Ricky has a truck push it to get it cranked. Homeward.
Wake up to familiar signs and city lights. People milling around aisles, trying to gather belongings for that final rush home and to work. Bus leader Andrea Cervantes, a strong advocate for sending economic aid, not military weapons, to Central American countries, thanks everyone for making the trip enjoyable and the march successful.
“The march strengthened jobs, peace, and freedom,” she would later say. “There were more than 200,000 there, and this is certainly telling us something. If it wasn’t so important, there wouldn’t be this kind of numbers in Washington. People sacrificed to go so far just to be visible.” She notes that many people approached her, asking if we were really from Dallas. “It made me feel very proud,” she says.
While the 1963 march helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a tangible victory of the 1983 march would soon occur when the U.S. Senate joined the House two months later to pass a veto-proof bill to make King’s birthday a federal holiday. Reagan, who released a statement calling the march “a moving moment in American history,” had opposed the King holiday, but he would be forced to sign the bill that November.
As we near the MLK Center, people seem nervous, like they don’t want to come back to the scene of somewhat pain and uncertainty. They want to stay out on the road, marching, where perhaps it’s easier to view some light at the end of the tunnel. A med student asks if anyone is going north so she can catch a ride. When no one volunteers, Shay does. So out of all the people on this bus, only two live north of Reunion Arena?
The trip brought home the realization that Texas and Deep South liberal and progressive types are probably the hardiest in the nation. They have to be. They fight the good fight on the front lines, overwhelmingly outnumbered, facing a potential deadly backlash with the ghosts of lynchings and firebombings never really shed, though it’s not as bad as it once was. But in 1983, it was still tough to be anywhere left of Texas Gov. Mark White, considered to be a conservative to moderate Democrat. After being considered a lib in Texas, Shay moved to Maryland, where he seems closer to a moderate.
Departing the bus, Rocket Ricky has a final present for everyone: A poster filled with notable African kings. Shake hands firmly. Not much else to say. Stay strong? Keep fighting? He knows that. He did what he said he was going to do, drive dozens of Texans in a large bus 3,000 miles over three days to attend this event. He broke speed limit laws to get us there on time, but sometimes, higher laws supersede lower ones. People like him keep the possibilities, the dreams, alive, despite all the obstacles, because they do more than talk. They follow through on their visions.
Ricky and Shay would not cross paths again. But to this day, of all the people Shay met on this journey, he stands out the most, perhaps because he was among the few advocating for these dreams while at work. Sometimes in Shay’s daydreams, he hears Ricky’s voice over an imaginary CB that silences another racist: “We want our fair share.”
His message may remain as much a dream as King’s, as we argue over how close to the civil rights martyr’s vision we really are in 2020. While Confederate statues topple and social justice advocates get tear gassed, beaten, and even killed, extremists on both sides — from Trump, Rittenhouse, and right-wing provocateurs to Antifa and others on the left who protest late into the night— ramp up the violence. Trump breaks laws like the Hatch Act and encourages his supporters to engage in violence while hypocritically calling for “law and order” to help stay in office. More authoritative measures seem just around the corner. Where will it end? Will it end?
If the ghosts of civil rights martyrs past, who advocated for liberty and justice for all in legal, nonviolent ways only to meet violent physical demises, could talk, perhaps they would say it doesn’t end. At least not in our world. But you have to remain true to the visions deep within you.