Fifty years ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his hopes
for this nation.
In what is known as the "I Have a Dream" speech, King spoke of the "manacles of segregation" and the "chains of discrimination." But, addressing hundreds of thousands of people from the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, King also said he had a dream for this nation to be a place of equality, brotherhood, justice and freedom, where people aren't judged by the color of their skin.
"It was a great speech for the time because it gave the people hope," said the Rev. Kary Williams Jr., pastor of Erie's St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church. "It's still great today because people still have that hope."
Members of Erie's black community said some things, such as housing options for minorities, are better five decades after King shared his dreams in the capital, where a black man now serves as president. But they worry that as time has passed and people have become complacent, the nation is slipping backward in areas like voting rights.
"I feel we have a lot to work on from 1963 to today," Marie Bonds Boykin, a St. James member, said.
Boykin was only 2 when King gave the speech, but she was in Washington for the 25th anniversary of the march.
The Erie resident was back there Saturday for the 50th anniversary celebration, when speaker Martin Luther King III said, "The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more."
Boykin said the original gathering, coming at a time of civil unrest in the country, was powerful and full of hope. So was the commemoration.
"Everybody was in harmony," she said. "It was black, white, yellow, green, purple, all walks of life there to embrace that moment in history."
Fred Rush, 70, another Erie resident, was in Washington when that history was made. He said a group, which included other St. James members, traveled to the capital by bus. Their trip didn't include an overnight stay because they didn't expect to find hotel accommodations in an area that was still segregated, Rush said. He said it was frightening, not knowing what police and others might do to marchers, but was worth the fear if it helped to make America work.
"I'd never seen so many people come together for a common cause," he said about the 250,000 on the National Mall that day.
His sister was away at a Christian camp in western Erie County. The Rev. Adrianne Rush was just 9 years old on Aug. 28, 1963. She said their parents were "staunch NAACP members" in Erie and she'd been marching for opportunities like fair housing here since she was 6.
Adrianne Rush said she owns a video of events from that day, including King's speech. In the decades since, she has seen improvements in housing. She said where people live is now more determined by how much they can afford to spend than what they look like. But she believes America still needs to work on intercultural communication and anti-racism training.
"We're still living in a land where the dream is deferred," said Adrianne Rush, associate minister at St. James.
Williams, the church's pastor, was also 9 at the time of the march and speech. He doesn't remember it from then, saying he was probably outside playing in Bay City, Texas, where he grew up. He said it was a segregated community, where he worked in a restaurant "with whites in the front and blacks in the back."
King, in his speech, offered people the hope of getting beyond such racism, Williams said.
The Erie minister compared King to Moses, who led his people out of the wilderness. Williams said King was leading a nation, not just black people, out of darkness and into the promised land.
"We still have a long ways to go so that dream is still on our minds and our hearts," Williams said.
Fred Rush said King's "I Have a Dream" speech was a great motivator, but he worries that it makes the civil rights leader out to be a dreamer and not an activist.
Fred Rush also worries that the people who were with King and came after haven't done a great job of teaching the young of today about the importance of that activism and staying committed and organized.
"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, but we've gotten lazy," he said.
Boykin hopes that events like this year's anniversary, which drew tens of thousands of people to the National Mall, will help stop the slip back.
King began his famous speech by calling the 1963 march "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."
Boykin said people shouldn't stop now.
"We, as a new generation, have to keep it going," she said.
DANA MASSING can be reached at 870-1729 or by e-mail. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNmassing.
(c)2013 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)
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