Chestnut: March was 'most unifying thing I had ever seen'


Published: Sunday, August 25, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 11:02 p.m.

When most people think of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the famous “I Have A Dream” speech delivered by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind.

But for Charles S. Chestnut III, owner of Chestnut Funeral Home on Northwest Eighth Avenue in Gainesville, the unity exhibited by African-Americans at the march is what comes to mind.

Chestnut was at the march, which was held Aug. 28, 1963, standing 50 yards from the podium where King delivered his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“It was probably the most unifying thing I had ever seen at the time that it occurred,” said Chestnut, who was 22 at the time. “It was just that back at that time, black folks, colored folks, Negroes — as we were called back then — were unified together and there was no question about the purpose of being there. Everybody was of one accord because everybody across this country was living under the same set of circumstances.”

Although African-Americans aren't living under the same set of circumstances today, residents from across the nation, including Gainesville, still will travel next week to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the anniversary of the march.

Evelyn Foxx, president of the Alachua County branch of the NAACP, said 57 residents from Gainesville, Lake City and Ocala will travel to the march on a chartered bus that will depart at 2:30 p.m. Friday from the Walmart Supercenter off Northeast Waldo Road and return between 10 and 11 p.m. Sunday. Foxx said there is no more space available on the bus.

There are two commemorative marches planned in Washington, D.C. — one on Saturday, which the Gainesville group will attend, and one on Aug. 28, the actual anniversary of the march.

Foxx said the leadership of the NAACP national board felt it is important for its members to be present at the march in large numbers because there still is a lot of progress to be made concerning the issues that led to the original march.

“The NAACP was one of the leading organizers of the march 50 years ago, and we are excited about having a major presence at the upcoming march because we still are facing some of the same issues they were facing in 1963 when Dr. King gave his speech,” Foxx said. “We haven't reached the promised land yet.”

Chestnut, 72, said, like most others at the march in 1963, he had never seen that many “black folks together” at one time, adding the only thing he could attempt to compare the experience to is attending Florida A&M University home football games in Tallahassee when the stadium is packed to capacity.

“The atmosphere was jovial but serious,” said Chestnut, while sitting in the lobby of his funeral home with pictures of his father, Charles Chestnut II, and his grandfather, Charles “Charlie” Chestnut, looking down on him from atop a wall facing the main entrance of the business. “It was a celebration of the fight, and there were no problems and no trouble.”

Chestnut said despite worries of rioting and violence by some, he does not recall hearing about any commotion or anyone being arrested, even though “there were police all over the place.”

He also said all liquor stores and similar establishments in D.C. were closed the day of the march, which was held on a Wednesday.

One of the largest political rallies for human rights in U.S. history, the march was organized by civil rights, labor and religious organizations to petition the federal government to protect the civil and economic rights of all Americans, especially African-Americans.

Chestnut said the program after the march featured speeches by Julian Bond and now-U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., both founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, a younger and more radical civil rights group than other civil rights groups at the time.

Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, which freed slaves in the South, participants marched the mile-long stretch of the National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial.

Chestnut said he went to the march because he was president of the Alachua County branch of the NAACP Youth Council. He said he traveled to D.C. on a train with a family friend, James Cunningham of Ocala, founder of Cunningham Funeral Home in Ocala.

Chestnut said he boarded a Seaboard Air Line Railroad train in Waldo around 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the day before the march, and remembers arriving in D.C. the next day. He said D.C. was shut down as people from all over the U.S. entered the nation's capital in buses, cars and trains. He said there were about 250 people on the train he was riding on by the time it reached D.C. after making stops in Jacksonville and other locations.

“I left that march feeling inspired from just seeing the number of people who were there for the same purpose,” said Chestnut, who plans to attend the commemorative march on Aug. 28 in the nation's capital. “There were at least 250,000 to 300,000 people there, and from where I was — about 50 yards away from the podium and looking back to the Washington Monument — there were nothing but people. You couldn't even see the ground. There were people as far as you could see, and they just blurred out of sight.”

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