Gathering gives hope to attendees of March on Washington commemoration


These were a few of the signs carried during the Aug. 24 commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington.

Submitted photo by Connie Almedei
Published: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.

On Wednesday morning, President Barack Obama will deliver a speech at the Lincoln Memorial from the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago during the historic March on Washington.

Thousands of people are expected to gather on the National Mall in commemoration of the event, a culmination of several days of events collectively referred to as the March for Jobs and Justice.

On Saturday, thousands of people from all across the country, including Marion and Alachua counties, gathered ahead of today’s commemoration. Among the 56 people on a bus trip organized by the NAACP were former state Rep. Cynthia Chestnut of Gainesville and concerned citizens of varying ages. Thirteen people boarded a bus Friday afternoon in Ocala, which also made stops to take on passengers in Gainesville, Jacksonville and Savannah, Ga.

Many among the 56 riders recapped their more than 28 hour bus ride to and from the nation’s capital and the events held Saturday.

“I believe it is historic and worth the effort,” said the Rev. Reggie Willis of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church in Ocala and community outreach coordinator for the Marion County branch of the NAACP. “If we stand back and let the regressives drive the conversation — who are more than conservative but are downright nasty — if no one answers, then the folks in mainstream may be left thinking it’s OK.”

Willis’ sentiments seemed to capture the general tone of group members, who expressed a common desire to honor the past and participate in current history to affect a better future.

“Jobs, justice and equal rights were the themes of Dr. King’s march 50 years ago,” said Evelyn Fox, president of the Alachua County branch of the NAACP. “Here we are in the same spot, 50 years later, marching for the same things. We have come a long way, but we are not where we need to be. Things are being stripped away; we can’t get too relaxed.”

Of being at the 50-year commemoration, Fox said, “It’s something I will never forget. It’s more important to me than Obama’s inauguration. There were lots of time I was holding back my tears.”

Beverly Braxton is president of the Ladies Democratic Club of Marion County.

“I came because I wanted to support the effort and because I am concerned with many issues and wanted to hear the speakers’ concerns on the issues,” she said.

She said immigration, gun violence, justice and Travon Martin were all issues she cared about, but that voter suppression topped her list.

“The most important thing is for us to be able to vote,” Braxton said.

Addressing the issues Braxton was most concerned about were NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and civil rights advocate Congressman John Lewis, a speaker at the event 50 years ago.

Braxton’s friend Beverly Baker attended the 30-year-anniversary march 20 years ago and was along this time as well.

“The weather was better this time,” she said. “It was a good crowd, equal or better to 20 years ago. It was nice to see so many people concerned and participating, and so many young people. That’s how things will change, with young people.”

Venetia Ponds is a graduate student at the University of Florida studying anthropology, specifically race relations.

“It was great to see so many people that care; they really care,” she said.

Betty Rose, a retiree from The Villages, was seated in a section for those with mobility challenges and could hear and see the speakers very well.

“John Lewis was wonderful, dynamic and so inclusive,” Rose saod.

Rose said she was an anti-war demonstrator in the 1960s and said of Saturday’s experience, “It brought me back, except there was less diversity then; (it) was mostly college kids. Also it’s a lot harder to get around now.”

Miriam Welty Elliott also was an anti-war activist in the ‘60s.

“I’ve been a peace and justice activist all my life,” she said. “One of the most important influences in my life is Dr. King and his message.”

She said she was very excited to see the national monument that is dedicated to King.

Alexis Bryant, 16, president of the Marion County NAACP Youth Council, and Chenoah Rucker, 18, a council member, made the trip and will report back to their group.

“The speakers were powerful,” Rucker said.

“I like to be involved and was pleased to see so many other young people involved,” Bryant added.

Chestnut is the community outreach coordinator for the NAACP in Alachua County, and has been a city commissioner, mayor commissioner and county commissioner. She said a major concern has been the retrenchment of voting rights.

“The most active thing we can do is vote,” she said.

Chestnut said the Supreme Court decision prompting some states to take away voting rights is what most motivated her. She said she also was completing a family circle, as her husband attended the march 50 years ago, so this was her turn.

“I was inspired, particularly by John Lewis; you could feel his passion, he was riveting,” she said.

Chestnut said she also was impressed by the number of young people who turned out.

“I see them and it gives me hope that we will be all right,” she said.

Summing up the trip, which was more than 14 hours each way and included an overnight stay near Washington, Beverly Baker said, “It’s a long ride, but it’s worth it.”

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