Ralph Worrell is an old guard in the civil rights and labor movements.
As an organizer for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union District 65 in New York, he took part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. And, as a longtime community organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the 84-year-old Lithonia great-grandfather will take part in the 50th anniversary of the historic march later this month.
Pastor Joseph L. Williams will be there, too. The 35-year-old pastor of Salem Bible Church wasn’t even born when the first march was held.
Worrell and Williams are a generation apart. Yet both are headed to Washington, D.C., for the same reason: They say the fight is far from over.
Worrell and others cite the recent killing of Trayvon Martin and Supreme Court decision to throw out a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, concern about the numbers of African Americans in the prison system, the national unemployment rate efforts to crush unions as reasons not to remain silent.
“We find ourselves going backward,” said Worrell, who was so impressed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the first march, that he later moved to Atlanta to work for the SCLC, the organization co-founded by King .
“We have to go back and let the government know, let the politicians know and let the departments of police know that we have no intention of going back,” said Worrell. “We are going to continue to move forward.”
Williams wants to come back with a strategy.
“We need a strategic plan of action that brings everybody in on the same page,” he said. “So when we go back to our communities, our churches and our schools, we know what we need to work on from this point forward.”
At least 27 buses will leave Georgia, filled by civil rights groups, churches and private groups. They will join a contingent of thousands of others from other states, although organizers are not estimating attendance.
Fifty years ago, King chastised a nation for ignoring one of its own tenets as stated in the Declaration of Independence, that all men created equal, and shared his dream that one day skin color would not matter.
The upcoming series of events, organized by different groups, kick off Aug. 21 with a praise and worship service service at Mount Airy Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and run through Aug. 28. During the closing ceremony, President Obama is expected to speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Organizers say there is a renewed sense of excitement and determination about the event.
“I believe you had people who really had no plans to be here on Aug. 24, who are now saying I not only want to come but I want to bring a bus,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. ” I think there’s a new passion out there that didn’t exist just 32 days ago.”
“It was almost like pouring some cold water in someone’s face who is half asleep,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, of the National Action Network, one of the organizers of the “Jobs, Justice, Peace & Freedom” march and rally on Aug. 24. Until Martin and the Supreme Court action, “a lot of people took for granted — that we had moved beyond the possibilities of that kind of regression.”
Martin Luther King III, a convener of the march and rally, was a child in 1963. He said he would have liked the 50th anniversary to be held in a “real truly commemorative spirit, ” but recent events show “that civil rights is not dead and it’s not done.”
Indeed, first March on Washington did much to elevate the civil rights struggle to the national and international stage.
Before the march, “Large numbers of Americans, particularly white Americans, had the impression that civil rights was a local issue: It was a problem for black people in Montgomery, or Birmingham, or maybe throughout the South, but it was not something that people in other parts of the country needed to worry about,” said Edwin Dorn, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas. “The March on Washington brought together people from all walks of life from throughout the nation — hundreds of thousands of people, including union leaders, Hollywood entertainers and veterans of the movement. Television news showed a panorama of a huge and diverse crowd of people. That had a profound effect on perceptions about the importance of the issue.”
In fact, 1963 was a seminal year for the U.S. civil rights movement. That year, King wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” just months before the March on Washington. In June, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his Jackson home. Later that summer, the Americus Movement in Georgia was launched that drew national attention on the extent of racism in Sumter County.
Less than a month after the people who participated in the March on Washington had gone home, a bomb exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., taking the lives of four African-American girls. It was also the same year, President John F. Kennedy was murdered.
“I call it a year of shocking advancement and setbacks,” said Jonathan Holloway, a history professor at Yale University. “It was a beautiful moment at the march. Later four little black girls are blown up in Birmingham. You can’t separate the two from each other.”
The next year Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. And two years after the march, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
When the SCLC’s Worrell first came to the United States, he lived in New York, where “I could get on the bus and go anywhere I wanted to go. I didn’t realize the position that blacks folks were in at the time.”
The march changed his life. “I was just a happy, go-lucky guy, making a decent salary and enjoying life,” he said. “After that, I realized there was a lot of work to be done in this country and I just wanted to be a part of bringing about that change.”
Now he wants others to help keep the movement going.
People like Hadayai Majeed, 58, of Conley.
Majeed, co-founded the Baitul Salaam Network, a organization that works to raise awareness about domestic violence, is ready. “We need to just step up and get back out there.”
Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.
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