Rutha Harris, an original member of The Freedom Singers was in Washington during the 1963 march and is back in Washington to perform during today’s 50th Anniversary celebrations.
ALBANY — Fifty years ago today, more than 250,000 people descended upon Washington D.C. and changed the course of American history.
“The March on Washington” was the largest rally in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and was highlighted by Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a dream speech.” It was a seminal moment in The Movement and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voters Rights Act of 1965.
“I was glad to be among that number; I was proud to be in that number, and I was proud to have sung there,” Rutha Harris, an original of The Freedom singers, said via phone from Washington Tuesday. “No one at the time knew how impactful the march and Dr. King’s speech would be on the country. After it was over, everyone left full of hope, and I returned home doing what I’d always done, spreading The Movement’s message through song.”
Harris will perform today during the 50th Anniversary celebration.
Former Albany Mayor Dr. Willie Adams was in college in Tallahassee, Fla., during the march, but understood then it would have a profound impact upon the nation.
“The March on Washington was a great moment in my life, and resulted in changes I thought I would never see in my lifetime,” Adams said. “At that time I was a senior at Florida A&M University and president of the student government association. I was involved in The Movement but did not make the trip to Washington.”
King’s speech, Adams said, thrust him into the national spotlight.
“We were blessed to have one of the greatest leaders and orators the black race will ever know in the person of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Adams said. “It was especially important that he believed in non-violent change. Other black leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael thought he was too much of a pacifist. Dr. King believed in gradual change. Others wanted it now. But Dr. King had it right, gradual change sticks better than rapid change.”
Albany Civil Rights Institute Interim Director W. Frank Wilson was a month out of high school and watched King’s speech from the sofa of his parents’ home in Moultrie.
“I didn’t fully understand what I was watching, but I knew it was significant, because the climate at the time was volatile,” Wilson said. “One thing many people don’t know about that speech was that ‘I have a dream’ wasn’t in the original draft. It was being edited and Mahalia Jackson spoke up and said ‘you need to tell them about your dream, Martin.’ It was added to the speech.”
Wilson pointed out that today is not only a celebration, but a wake-up call.
“Today, not only do we have the opportunity to revisit a historic moment, but to bring attention to issues still facing our country,” Wilson said. “It’s an observance, but also a wake-up call for voters’ rights, equal opportunity and equality in education.”
Dougherty County School Board Vice-Chair and former congressional staffer James Bush recalled the march and the message that was sent to the country.
“I was 12 years old in Miller County and two of my principals, James E. Merritt and Erasmus Dent, were active in The Movement behind the scenes.,” Bush said. “One of the most active persons in The Movement then was a farmer by the name by the name of Benjamin T. Kunney. He stood up when it was very unpopular to do so and he was in Washington that day. It’s also important to note that a rich white man in Baker County, Clarence Cross, who owned property adjacent to Itchaway Plantation, rented new cars for Mr. Kunney and his group to make the trip to Washington.”
Bush added America has made great strides in those 50 years.
“We were very young and we were told that there were a lot of people going to Washington and risking their lives to make it possible to share in the American dream.,” Bush recalled. “Black people and America have come a long way since and things are much better for all of us. We thought things would begin to open up for us and it finally happened.”