‘Only the few bathrooms at the Washington Monument and hundreds of children with an urgent need. Even the doors to the Smithsonian museums on the Mall were locked to prevent us from entering,” Betty-Chia Karro recalls.
Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of a turning point in American history. The March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech put an up-close-and-personal face on the shame of discrimination.
In 1997, Liz and I had been reading a new biography about one of the lesser-known heroes of the movement that so changed American life: “James Haskin’s Bayard Rustin: Behind the Scenes of the Civil Rights Movement,” a compelling story about both the man and a series of organizations at the center of the events that led to 1964’s civil rights legislation.
That’s when Liz encountered Betty-Chia Karro and her daughter, Katrina. They’d come to San Luis Obispo so Katrina could attend Lindamood-Bell Learning Center.
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Betty had been a high school student in 1957-58. Earlier, she had joined Rustin on picket lines he organized at the South African Consulate in New York, protesting apartheid. Now, she would follow him to Washington to participate in a Children’s Crusade for Integrated Schools.
Through Betty and the Rustin biography, we learned that there were four — and nearly five — marches on Washington, D.C.
The first had been scheduled for July 4, 1941. It was organized by A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the first effective union of African-American workers.
Randolph was well educated and trained as a Shakespearean actor. He spoke in clipped, measured tones that immediately commanded respect. Randolph became a role model for the men who followed him, such as Rustin and King.
As America geared up for World War II, Randolph feared blacks wouldn’t share in the prosperity the war would bring. Blacks had suffered disproportionate reverses during the Great Depression. Many were unemployed.
Randolph proposed a march in Washington to persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to sign what became Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in hiring for war industries and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
When FDR signed the order, the march was called off.
The first march to actually take place was the Prayer Pilgrimage on May 17, 1957. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, together with other groups, wanted to celebrate the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision, which mandated an end to school segregation.
The organizers expected 50,000 people to join in the march. They were somewhat disappointed when about 20,000 showed up at the Lincoln Memorial, where King spoke.
Despite the low turnout, King received enthusiastic applause for his speech, titled “Give Us the Ballot.” It was the first time that King had addressed a predominantly Northern audience. It was also his introduction to the national labor movement. This was important because the unions began to contribute funds to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
To be continued …
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A new film, “The Butler,” is the story of Cecil Gaines, an African-American man who views America’s struggle for civil rights both as a father and through his 34 years serving as a White House butler, from 1954 to 1988.
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker are magnificently cast as Gloria and Cecil Gaines. For readers who lived through this era, it will all ring true in its gut-wrenching realism. For those too young to remember, it is a must!
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.