Middle Georgians commemorate 50th anniversary of march on Washington

pramati@macon.comAugust 23, 2013 

Fifty years ago, when she was 16, Thelma Dillard had never been outside of Macon.

But with her mother and brother both heavily involved in Macon’s civil rights movement -- both played integral roles in desegregating the Bibb County school system -- there was no way Dillard wanted to miss the opportunity to get together with a quarter-million other activists and hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.

Dillard, a retired educator and member of the Bibb County school board, said the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 was a life-changing experience.

“Being that young, I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I had never seen anything like it. There were people of every color, creed, religion, nationality. ... But it was a calm, quiet, peaceful rally.”

Johnny Kirk was only 6 at the time and has only seen on TV what Dillard and others who attended the rally experienced that day. When the activists of the current era decided to hold a 50th anniversary commemoration march at the Lincoln Memorial, Kirk, a business developer in Warner Robins, said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be part of it.

“I missed (the original) one, but I’m not going to miss this thing,” said Kirk, who was driving Friday with his wife and younger son to meet his older son, a Maryland resident, at the event. “I’m glad to be a part of history. We’re attending as a family.”

When the original march took place, times were much different and there were real dangers of protesting the injustices in the day, Dillard said.

Dillard said her mother, Hester Bivins, lost her job after signing the petition to integrate schools, and her brother, Bibb County Commissioner Bert Bivins, was arrested for taking part in a sit-in at the YMCA.

Dillard said the most difficult memory from that time was when her grandmother brought food to the family. While holding the bags of food, her grandmother had difficulty getting her money out to pay for the bus fare. The bus driver yelled at her to get to the back of the bus, then lurched the bus forward, causing her grandmother to fall.

When her mother got upset, Dillard’s grandmother said simply, “It’s OK. I’m used to it.”

Going to Washington, D.C., gave Dillard and her family hope for the future. Not only was there a diverse gathering of people to hear King and others speak, but Congress also passed significant legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act soon after.

Dillard said the optimism that times were changing was prevalent during the 1963 march.

“There was excitement in the air,” she said. “We felt like we were going to be respected and treated as first-class citizens. I got to see Harry Belafonte sing for the first time. I heard (gospel star) Mahalia Jackson. I knew we were going together as one big rainbow. ... The speech gave me hope. I knew a change was going to come.”

Dillard said that in the half-century that has passed, a lot of positive change has taken place, but there are still many strides to be taken. The poverty rate has doubled since that time, and there’s still significant violence and crime in the black and white communities, she said.

Dillard and Kirk said some of the significance of the march has been lost on the current generation, and society needs to do a better job remembering the lessons of the civil rights era.

“A lot of people can do things today because of (King and the activists),” Kirk said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think people today are exposed to it.”

Dillard said King used to say that if people forgot the past, they were condemned to repeat it.

“People today don’t know (about history),” she said. “You can’t progress if you don’t know where you came from. You can’t appreciate what I appreciate.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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