Forty-five years is a long time to look back and remember, but my years in "The Movement" are years I shall never forget. In 1963, I was personally involved in organizing demonstrations in Knoxville, Tennessee; Danville, Virginia; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and other places in the South as a member of the Executive Committee of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC was the vanguard organization of the Civil Rights Movement and helped propel other civil rights organizations into action. It was SNCC that orchestrated and initiated the demonstrations in Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama which brought other organizations into the movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), crucial since Dr. King himself was truly the symbolic leader of the Civil Rights Movement. By August of 1963 I had gone to jail in Knoxville, Danville, and Chapel Hill as a result of my involvement in the movement and demonstrating in Southern cities. I have so far been jailed approximately thirty (30) times for protesting and demonstrating for social justice and peace.
Preparing for the March on Washington was an exciting time. As a member of the Executive Committee of SNCC, I was involved in the preliminary planning for the march. The actual march was very different from that which some had suggested and recommended take place. For example, some had sought to form a "human petition" on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The purpose of this "human petition" would be to demand an end to the disenfranchisement of African Americans from exercising the voting rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution of the United States. For some of the more radical among us, the March on Washington was to be a rally through which individuals would engage in activities to disrupt the Federal government, by swamping the telephone switchboards of the various departments of government, by chaining themselves to the White House and other government buildings, and by stopping traffic in the District. Government would cease to function. As history has reported, these actions did not take place.
In late August, I was home in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a brief visit with my family. I then left Knoxville en route to Danville in Southern Virginia. Danville had become a hotspot for civil rights protests in the Southeast United States. I arranged for Matt Jones, who assisted me with the SNCC Danville project, to lead the entire Danville delegation north to the March. Matt, also from Knoxville, later went on to write some of the greatest songs of the Civil Rights Movement.
After conferring with SNCC and SCLC leadership and Danville leaders, I departed Virginia for a series of speaking engagements, in order to raise money for the Civil Rights Movement, particularly for SNCC. On or about August 26th, I spoke in Chicago to the Students for Democratic Society (SDS), to secure their support for the demonstrations in the South, to raise money, and to lead a contingent to the March on Washington.
According to my airline ticket, I departed Chicago on August 27th at 6:00 P.M. Central Time; the ticket does not show my arrival time in Washington, D.C., but I assume I arrived around 8:00 Eastern Time that evening. From the airport I immediately went to check in at Washington's Statler Hilton Hotel, headquarters hotel for the leadership of the March on Washington. After checking in I met with SNCC staff, those from the Atlanta Office and those from afar. Marion Berry, the first chairman of SNCC, was there; he too had traveled from Knoxville, where he attended graduate school. Joyce and Dorrie Ladner of Mississippi, Gloria Richardson and Reggie Robinson of Cambridge, Maryland, Ivanhoe Donaldson from the Danville Project, and Ruby Doris Smith and Bobbie Yancy from Atlanta were also in attendance. That evening of August 27, 1968, I received my credentials as a platform guest for the next day at the Lincoln Memorial.
I spent that evening sharing stories with my fellow civil rights workers from across the country of the experiences we had weathered throughout the South because of our belief in the righteousness of the Civil Rights Movement. We felt that we were going to change the world. I retired for the evening not knowing what would happen in the morning, but I was unafraid.
On August 28th, I left the hotel early because I felt excitement in the air. As I recall there was a cool breeze. With suit, a shirt and tie, a tote, and a straw hat, I headed towards the Washington Monument. Len Holt described me in his book, An Act of Conscience:
Avon Rollins, the most un-SNCC-like person one would ever meet, in the peculiar uniform he wore consisting of a suit, white shirt, four-in-hand tie and white handkerchief neatly folded in the lapel of the suit coat. On the rare occasions when he wore overalls, the SNCC uniform, they were starched and creased and worn with a shirt and tie. Rollins never looked anything other than a business executive, which he was. His business was racial protest.
As I arrived at the Washington Monument, it was very interesting: The streets seemed deserted. Early that morning, about 7:00 or 7:30 A.M., there were maybe a thousand people assembled. Later on and throughout the morning they came, and they came, and they came, until the crowd reached its estimated height of over 300,000 sometime around 11:30 A.M. Then the marchers left the Washington Monument and began the one-mile walk to the Lincoln Memorial. There was some confusion as the march headed out, in terms of getting the leadership positioned to lead the march.
Finally, the March was on its way. As I looked at the faces, I was awestruck by the multi-colored faces of the marchers: Their dedication, their sincerity, their somberness, and their unspoken resolve to make a difference. We all — old, young, black, white, lay and priest and Levite — headed towards the Lincoln Memorial. Upon arriving at the Memorial, and presenting the platform pass as my credentials, I was permitted to enter the platform. Suddenly, I came face to face with the leaders of the day: Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Dick Gregory, Marion Anderson, Oddetta, and on and on. The leadership of the Civil Rights Movement was a Who's Who of African-American history. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were the coordinators of the March. Other titans of the movement in attendance were the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of SNCC James Forman, Chairman John Lewis and the many other faces of SNCC. [James Farmer of the Congress of Race Equality (CORE) remained in the South in jail and could not attend the March.] The singing and the speeches began, and the highlight of the singing was Mahalia Jackson. She was magnificent. As Mahalia's voice rose, I looked out from my coveted perch and saw the sea of people sway and sing: The great leadership, the preachers, the teachers, the maids and cooks. We all were joined together that day, equalized by our purpose for social and economic change in America. I felt that I was truly an eyewitness to history.
Some white clergy wanted John Lewis to change his speech. John was the newly elected Chairman of SNCC. In looking back, I guess the thing that confounds me most is how they got hold of John's speech in the first place. John wanted to chastise the politicians for their lack of support for the Civil Rights Movement. John wanted to outline how young people were being whipped and old people were being jailed for urging blacks to vote in the South. John's speech went on to imply that if the March was merely a gesture, then that gesture was an obscene one. John wanted to point out that the young people of America, particularly in the South, were the new revolutionaries for social change and justice. Most of all, John wanted to make the remark that these young revolutionaries would march through the South, "through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman" marched from Atlanta to the sea. He wanted to say that the party of President Kennedy was also the party of Senator Eastland of Mississippi. The answer to the question "Where was our political party?" was: We had none. But as I recall, it was a white bishop who objected, and John was forced to tone down his speech. About twenty people surrounded John. We debated the issue at the foot of Lincoln's statue, whether to change John's speech or just to depart from the March. I suggested that we needed to disperse and let a few people work with John to change his speech. SNCC Executive Secretary Forman, Courtland Cox of SNCC's Washington Office, and Mississippi SNCC March Coordinator Joyce Ladner all stayed with John to help him change his speech. The modified speech was well received, and as he concluded his remarks all the elders of the movement embraced him, shook his hand, and congratulated him on his delivery. But his speech was still bold.
Then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to the podium. As he approached, there was a spontaneous roar from the crowd, followed by a thunderous ovation. He began his remarks to relay his great dream for America, never anticipating the tremendous response to his now famous "I Have A Dream" speech. Today, 45 years later, most school kids know all or much of this speech by heart. It makes me proud. When Dr. King concluded his speech, many thought that the March was over and began to leave. Someone went to the podium and encouraged people to stay for the remainder of the program. It was an awesome program. But the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement, "We Shall Overcome," was left off the program, because some were afraid an all-too- real demonstration would break out. Some of The Powers That Be thought that the song would be a battle cry for the assembled masses. However, the SNCC revolutionaries began to sing it anyhow. It was a moment of rebellion and defiance. It was also contagious, as thousands of others joined in, began to join hands, and sing the words in unison.
Observations from the Platform
I shall never forget looking straight ahead at the hundreds of thousands of people surrounding the Reflecting Pool and assembled all around the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was an overwhelming sight to behold, and overwhelming to hear the thunderous applause received by the speakers. The March on Washington was a tremendous success. For a week or so after the march, there was a noticeable lull in the civil rights struggle throughout the country. Yet then came the reaction of right-wing segregationists in the South, who were still vehemently opposed to the Civil Rights Movement.
After the March was over, there was a delegation of the leadership that met with the President at the White House. There was the young John Lewis, our SNCC leader and spokesman; Floyd McKissick of CORE; Whitney Young of the National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, Head the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union; and Roy Wilkins, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As I recall, John F. Kennedy issued a statement praising the "conduct" of marchers, and he said that the cause of 20 million Negroes had been advanced. President Kennedy did not participate in the March directly. However, it is believed that he did intervene on behalf of the March indirectly. I have always believed it interesting to note how the nation's Capital moved some 300,000 people into and out of the District within a single day. We showed up at sunrise and we were gone by sundown. The March was over, and we went back to our various hamlets in the Southland.
Looking back, it is always easier to see your obvious mistakes, especially when that backwards glance spans 45 years. At that greatly momentous occasion in history, there was no female principal speaker, just some introductions, although there were many women in the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement — for example, the National Council of Negro Women's Dorothy Height, and of course Ella Baker, who helped Dr. King organize the SCLC and was its first Executive Secretary. Ms. Baker helped the students to organize SNCC and was a tremendous advisor to both organizations; she would have made a good principal speaker at the March. It was an oversight by the leadership in not including at least one prominent female spokesperson for the movement, especially true since so many women were participating in the movement, providing leadership, getting beaten, going to jail.
After the March
I went back to Knoxville, shuttling back and forth to Danville and Chapel Hill, Birmingham and Selma in Alabama, points in Mississippi, Greenwood and Greenville. The Civil Rights Movement was a real eye-opening experience for this youngster from Tennessee. Prior to my experiences with the movement, probably the farthest south I had ever traveled was Chattanooga as a youngster with the Junior Elks Drill Team, no farther north than to Washington as a student safety patrolman. So my travels had been fairly limited. It was an awakening to go into the Deep South, to Mississippi, and watch African Americans have to step completely off the sidewalks as whites approached, where blacks knew that it could mean their deaths if they even looked white people in the eyes. They dropped their heads or looked the other way as whites approached. It was an eerie experience.
I shall never forget the dogs, the fire hoses, the armored tanks with machine guns, the baseball bats, the beatings, the shots fired at us, the deaths: All to give African Americans the opportunity freely to exercise their rights under the Constitution of the United States.
I have spent the rest of my life never far from those days 45 years ago. I moved from marching and demonstrating to the avenue of social change by economic development and parity for African Americans. As I have said in speeches across the country a thousand times, "America, are you really America to me? America, are you really the land of the free and the home of the brave?" Forty-five years ago, the answer to that question was no. Forty- five years later, as we ponder this still new millennium in 2008, I still ask, "America, are you really America to me? America, are you really the land of the free and the home of the brave?" Forty-five years later the unemployment rate of African Americans is still twice that of whites. The per capita income in African-American families is approximately 60% of their white counterparts. The mortality rate among all African-American births is still drastically high. African Americans comprise approximately 13% of the population of the entire State of Tennessee, but more than 50% of the prison population! So the answer remains: America is not yet the land of the free and the home of the brave for the African Americans who have contributed so greatly to this great nation.
America and the world owe a great debt to those young idealistic revolutionaries of 45 years ago who marched and protested to make America a better America. The names that follow are not inclusive of all, but only a partial list of the heroes and heroines: Annie Pearl Avery, Faye Bellamy, Sam Block, Julian and James Bond, Ann Braden, Ben Brown, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, James Chaney, Charlie Cobb, Courtland Cox, Connie Curry, Doris Derby, Ralph Featherstone, Betty Mae Fikes, James Forman, Mildred Page Forman, Daniel A. Foss, Joanne Grant, Lawrence Guyot, Prathia Hall, Fannie Lou Hammer, Bill Hansen, Curtis Hayes, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Bernice Johnson, June Johnson, Marshall Jones, Rev. Matthew A. Jones Sr., Matthew A. Jones Jr., Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorrie and Joyce Ladner, Bernard LaFayette, John Lewis, Worth Long, Danny Lyon, Bob Mants, Bob Moses, Charles McDew, Diane Nash, Lester McKinney, Rosa Parks, Willie Peacock, William Porter, Martha Precod, Cordell Reagon, Gloria Richardson, Willie Ricks, Cleveland Sellers, Charles Sherrod, Sam Shirah, Frank Smith, Ruby Doris Smith, Hollis Watkins, Stanley Wise, Bobbie Yancy, Bob Zellner.
A few years ago my friend the songwriter Matt Jones wrote a song entitled When I Was Young in which he extolled our struggle in the Civil Rights Movement. The song goes on to say, "Who would have thought that four decades later we would still be fighting?" How poetic. Those whose names are shown in bold print above have gone ahead, but how I dearly wish I could call each one of them up on the phone to discuss the issues of today.
Finally, it is with great pride for all of us who marched, and in memory of all those who lost their lives for The Movement, that exactly 45 years to the day of the March on Washington, an African American is slated to accept the nomination of one of the two major American political parties for President of the United States.
Recollection of moments of the March on Washington by Avon W. Rollins,
Beck Cultural Exchange Center
1927 Dandridge Ave.
Knoxville, TN 37915
Ph. (865) 524-8461
Fax (865) 524-8462
Prepared August 5, 2003, revised June 14, 2008
Copyright © 2003-2008, Avon Rollins Sr. All rights reserved.