Remembering the march

HOUGHTON – Fifty years ago today, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the 1963 March on Washington, and Betty Chavis, local businesswoman and longtime multi-cultural affairs leader at Michigan Technological University, was there.

“At the time you just knew there was something big that was going on, never envisioning that it would culminate into what it has culminated into,” said Chavis during a Tuesday Daily Mining Gazette interview at her Copper Country Mall store Betty’s Collectibles, Art, Antiques, Treasures. “It was exhilarating. Seeing that many people at one time, it was mind-boggling.”

Chavis was one of about 250,000 people who heard the speech that day near the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. A Detroit native in her late 20s, she got together with some friends, pooled gas money together and made the trip to Washington, D.C.

“We didn’t know where we were going to sleep, we didn’t care,” she recalled, noting it took about half an hour just to walk from where they parked to the event on the warm summer day. “I can still feel what it was like. It was electrifying. It felt good all over.”

Chavis, who was also at The Freedom Walk on Woodward Avenue in Detroit on June 23, 1963, when she got within a few feet of MLK, said much progress has been made through the civil rights movement, but more work lies ahead.

“We’ve come a very long way since then, still not far enough, but we’re getting there,” she said. “Just thinking about it from those days, to even envision at that time that we’d have a president of color today would have never crossed our minds.”

Willie Melton, Michigan Tech professor emeritus, and his wife Gloria, former Tech dean of students, who live in Houghton, vividly remember what the summer of 1963 was like for African-Americans.

Both were in high school at the time, Willie in Chicago, and Gloria in Memphis.

While MLK’s famous speech – delivered 100 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – is now becoming a romanticized part of history, according to Willie, the era in which it was delivered was certainly not romantic.

“America was an evolving, conflicted culture at that time on a number of fronts,” he said. “… When you hear that ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, there’s a lot of stuff underneath that people simply don’t understand.”

Willie said as a youth in Chicago, MLK’s message of peace wasn’t necessarily well-received, and he was even losing many in the young black population who leaned toward Malcolm X or many other civil rights activists. Even in the south, Gloria said some thought King was going too far too fast.

While the March on Washington was peaceful, it certainly wasn’t clear at the time whether it would be.

“Some of the politicians at the time were really afraid to have that march,” Willie said. “It turned out OK, and now we remember it as black and white working together, but before that, you couldn’t have predicted that.”

Two years later, Willie briefly met MLK at an event in Chicago, with the issues there being fair housing and job opportunities. While the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, it wasn’t until after King’s assassination in (April) 1968 that many changes started to be made.

“Culture doesn’t change just because you write a rule someplace,” Willie said. “My generation would test out places to see if it was OK, even though legally it was OK.

“… The culture now has just started to change where less of that testing is going on. The point is you still had that period from ’64 through King’s assassination in which it didn’t make a whole lot of material different on the ground. ‘I Have a Dream’ was still just that.”

Willie emphasized again there were a lot of other competing voices vying for public attention, though ultimately King’s speech, in hindsight, was a watershed moment.

“This was a significant march at that point in time because of things that had gone on before, and because it was something people could attach to and say we could go farther,” Gloria said.

It served as a catalyst for progress, but Willie noted that many of the people who were involved in the movement at the time – on both sides – are still alive.

“If I was 17-18 years old and there was a counter-movement, who was part of that counter-movement?” he said.

While many peoples’ views have changed since then as a result of the movement, current issues still remain.

“Things have changed, yes,” Willie said. “You do not see those obvious signs of racial animosity, but when you get a situation like the Trayvon Martin/Zimmerman thing, boom, you tapped into it.”

“There are still some difficult conversations to have,” Gloria said, such as conversations about the balance between freedom and equality.

For Gloria, the March on Washington meant expanding opportunity, for Willie it meant continuing the conversation.

“We’re still struggling with some of the ideas of how do we live as a society collectively,” he said. “What values do you carry? How committed are you to the larger society? That’s where people have to be mindful.”

Today in Washington, D.C., a “Let Freedom Ring” event will be held in which President Obama and former Presidents Clinton and Carter will speak at the Lincoln Memorial.

Many local communities, including Houghton, will ring bells at 3 p.m. in honor of the anniversary.