Among the thousands who packed the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington immortalized by the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, were at least 25 Lorain County residents.
They listened to dozens of speakers at the Lincoln Memorial including U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., — the only surviving speaker from the 1963 march — and Martin Luther King III. After about five hours of speeches, participants marched to the Martin Luther King Memorial and the Washington Monument.
Signs at the march included calls to protect voting rights, end racial profiling, reverse “stand your ground” self-defense laws associated with the killing of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and to remember King’s antiwar, pro-jobs legacy. Locals said they supported the march agenda for greater economic, racial and sexual equality.
They said they worried that achievments of the civil rights movement King helped lead had been eroded. The recent dismantling of Section V of the Voting Rights Act, designed to keep Southern states with histories of voting discrimination in check, was singled out by Elyria City Councilwoman Brenda Davis, D-2nd Ward.
“I’m really upset about it because I can’t see how we can just sit back and let this happen,” said Davis, 63. “These states are manipulating the law so they can get this across.”
The killing of the unarmed Martin and the July acquittal of George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer who followed and fatally shot him, resonated with the crowd. Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, was among the speakers, and some speakers compared the affair to the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi and the acquittal of the men, who later admitted to killing him.
“I’m a gun owner, but I don’t believe one man has a right to stand his ground when the other one doesn’t,” said Darryl Campbell, 47, of North Ridgeville. “I believe that man was guilty of killing somebody’s child.”
Campbell, a United Auto Workers Union Local 1005 member who works at the General Motors plant in Parma, said the economic equality message of the 1963 march continues to matter. He cited how deindustrialization and free trade laws like the North American Free Trade Agreement increasingly shipped manufacturing jobs to China and called for a reinvestment in the U.S.
“We’ve got people here that we need to take care of,” Campbell said.
While some locals said they had attended past civil rights rallies, the march was the first for Andy Ramos, 34, of Sheffield Lake. Ramos, a member of UAW Local 2000 who works at the Ford plant in Avon Lake, said he went to witness history and take home the march message of social and racial justice home to his 4-year-old daughter.
“There’s no black, white, Hispanic. Everybody’s one,” he said. “I want her to grow up like that. I don’t want her to be racist, because I’m not.”
Some residents said King’s image has been sanitized since his death and his antiwar message in the last years of his life — “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my country” — had been downplayed. The Afghanistan war was not mentioned by speakers, and a “Dreams Not Drones” sign was one of the signs in the crowd that alluded to U.S. militarism.
Nonetheless, John Cannon, a 65-year-old Oberlin resident and Vietnam War veteran who served in the Air Force, said he admired King for denouncing that war, knowing it would cost him support.
“I didn’t see we accomplished anything, and I lost a couple of friends,” said Cannon, commander of American Legion Post 656 in Oberlin.
Cannon said he benefited from King’s push for economic equality, saying he landed a job with Columbia Gas in 1973 through affirmative action. Gloria Buxton, a 54-year-old Lorain resident and retired Oberlin Schools administrator and teacher, said she had also benefited from the movement, calling herself “a product of the dream.”
Buxton said she worries that young people won’t have the same opportunities she had and said some don’t understand what the movement meant. Buxton said some resort to violence.
“There’s a gap in their history,” she said. “These kind of events closes the gap.”
Marcher Rosa Gee, a 63-year-old retired health care worker from Sheffield Lake, also said the march is more than symbolic. While the majority of the marchers were middle-aged, Gee noted that thousands were children, teenagers and college students.
“As long as we’ve got all those young people here, there’s still hope,” Gee said. “Change is still needed, and it still can happen.”