Today — Monday, Aug. 28 — marks 60 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when 250,000 protesters demanded equal rights for African Americans and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Two Central Florida women who were part of that march agreed to share their stories.
Linda Chapin and her dog Oliver welcomed me to their home in Orlando’s College Park neighborhood.
In the 1990s, Chapin led Orange County as its first mayor (the post was called “chairman” at the time). But back in 1963, the 20-year-old white woman had just graduated from Michigan State University and come back home to Orlando.
On Aug. 27 of that year, she took a train to Washington, D.C., and met up with college friends who were also concerned about civil rights.
The next day was an experience they had not anticipated – they had not expected the vast number of people.
“We had come because we were young, because something important was happening, because friends were there, because it was going to be a big event,” Chapin said. “We did not know that it was going to be one of the most important moments of the 20th century.”
Chapin said she doesn’t remember many details from that day. Her recollections are mixed in with videos she’s seen through the years. But she is grateful she was there.
“Being part of that — and knowing as we went along how important that moment was — gave me a sense of responsibility. I had to fulfill that legacy, that day, the impetus for change. I had to be part of continuing that.”
In a blue-and-white home in Rockledge, near Cocoa, Rosemary McGill let me set up a microphone on a chair to record her story.
In the late ’50s and earlier ’60s, McGill, then a Black teenager, joined other local youth in civil rights protests guided by the Rev. Willie O. Wells and Rudy Stone. Up the coast in St. Augustine, she marched with Dr. King and witnessed Klan violence.
For McGill, the memory of the March on Washington is full of rich details and wonder and a lesson about choosing love over hate.
She was part of the small Brevard County delegation sponsored by the NAACP traveling through the night on one of the so-called “Freedom Trains.”
“So that was three of us girls, and one boy and a chaperone. And we got on that Freedom Train that came all the way from Opa Locka. Florida, and down in Miami,” McGill said.
“And let me tell you, I thought, too, it was just going to be Black people on that train. It was full of white folks, Jews and Catholics. It was so many priests on those train. And we sang all night long. All night long. Eating and singing and smoking cigarettes.”
In Washington, they joined the huge crowd marching slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue. McGill says three singers — she called them hippies — marching next to her group turned out to be the folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary. And behind her were a line of nine white men.
McGill and other protesters had been instructed to avoid violence – but the man behind her kept touching her back.
She had no experience with white people joining in protests, and she suspected he was trying to cause trouble.
“I got agitated. I said, ‘If this man fondles my body one more time, it’s going to be a fight on Pennsylvania Avenue and it’s going to be a bad riot.’ By the time we’re coming up to the Lincoln Memorial, he’s fondling my back,” McGill said. “And the boy that was in my delegation for my high school … turned to me and said, ‘Rose, help him up. He’s blind.’
“I get choked up every time. That man was there marching for the same thing I was marching for and using my body as his guide.”
As McGill sees it, the whole day was miraculous.
“Nine men from the blind foundation, can you imagine that? And the person next to me — how in the world history would have Peter, Paul and Mary next to me singing a folk song? ‘If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning. I had hammer about the love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land,’” McGill said.
“Then I go and sit at the foothills of the Lincoln Memorial and listen to Dr. King when he burst out with ‘I have a dream.’ Nobody but those that were there can imagine what that was like. It was sacred.”
King spoke with an evangelical passion that caught their attention, McGill said. “I don’t care how hot it was or how tired you was. You sat up and you listened. And when you’re listening? Here’s the thing that was so passionate about it. You started crying. And you didn’t even know why you were crying.”
A history lesson
But to really explain what the March on Washington means for her, McGill tells a story about two little girls from McComb, Mississippi.
It was back in the 1930s. The girls – ages 8 and 12 — were standing beside their mother when, according to McGill’s story, she was shot to death by a white plantation owner. The man thought he could claim what some called “Paramour rights” and rape any Black woman on his land.
But their mother had resisted.
The girls fled into a swamp, where they hid for two days. Later, they escaped to Biloxi with their older sisters.
McGill picks up the story 10 years later.
“It was a cold, cold winter morning, 1944, February 23rd. Cold. The 18-year-old gave birth to a nine-pound baby girl. That nine-pound baby girl was me. That 8- year-old girl was my mother. The 22-year-old was my Aunt Rose who I’m named after,” she said.
“When I think about the March on Washington, when I think about the experiences I’ve had, when you asked me a question: What did that day mean? That day has a lot of history for me.”
McGill believes the honest history – the true stories of African Americans – need to be told.
Back in Orlando, Chapin, the former mayor, has a similar concern. Chapin says she celebrates decades of progress on civil rights but thinks Florida is taking a step backward with, for example, its controversial new standards for teaching African American history.
“I’ve been enormously disappointed and distressed over the attempt in Florida to diminish that history, to look away from what actually happened to African Americans and to many people involved in that movement.”
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