N.O. participants remember event that challenged nation’s view of segregation
Fifty years later, the details of the March on Washington are blurry for Matt “Flukey” Suarez. But like other New Orleanians who witnessed what many consider the seminal moment in civil-rights history, Suarez is still overwhelmed by what he experienced that day.
“We didn’t know how great of an achievement it was until later, but there was a euphoria you felt,” said Suarez, now 75. “It was the first time for all of us to be in a crowd that large. And to think that we were all there for the same reason. You looked around and all you saw was joy, happiness and camaraderie.”
On August 28, 1963, Suarez was among a quarter-million activists from across the country that hopped on buses and trains and drove cars to Washington, D.C., to be part of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” organized by six key civil-rights groups along with labor and religious leaders. The march became one of the largest demonstrations in the nation’s history.
The three-hour program was topped by civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and is considered the first time that a national audience saw a speech by King, who was shot to death in Memphis in 1968. After the march, President John F. Kennedy met with march leaders in a meeting that, combined with the momentum created that day, helped to move officials toward passing the landmark Civil Rights Act, which was enacted in 1964.
By age 25, Suarez had already served a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy and was one of the older members of the New Orleans contingent of CORE — the Congress of Racial Equality. Despite the group’s overall youth, the small local CORE chapter, led by Oretha Castle Haley, was already considered one of the leading civil-rights groups in the nation.
By the time members set off for the nation’s capital, most had been arrested and jailed dozens of times for picketing or trying to integrate whites-only lunch counters and businesses in New Orleans. They’d volunteered in big numbers for the Freedom Rides that desegregated bus and train stations across the South. Then they jumped into voter registration projects in some of the toughest areas of rural Mississippi and Louisiana.
Suarez rode to Washington, D.C., on a bus from Mississippi, where he was leading voter registration efforts at the time. After a late-night conversation with union organizer A. Philip Randolph, who headed up the march, Suarez decided that his role that day would be “to stimulate and arouse” — basically, to get people who might otherwise be mere spectators to be engaged as participants.
That day, Suarez and a group of Mississippi children he was with paraded through the streets of D.C. singing and talking with locals who were en route to work, running errands or paying a bill.
“We wanted everyone to understand: ‘You need to be here. You need to participate,’ ” he said.
Today, even though some of his memories of that day are faded, the lyrics of those songs come easily to Suarez, whose voice is strong and steady. He sang those anthems thousands of times during the 1960s, at rallies, marches, in jail cells and sometimes inside cars he drove at heart-racing speeds through the backroads of Mississippi with Ku Klux Klan members in pursuit.
On the day of the march, Suarez and the children sang movement standards — songs set to the tune of old spirituals with lyrics that spoke of penitentiaries, protests in Selma, Ala., and of avowed white supremacist Ross Barnett, the governor of Mississippi. Songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” with topics and locations plugged in as the mood struck them, such as “Tell the Ku Klux Klan, I’m going to let it shine” or “All over Mississippi, I’m going to let it shine.”
Suarez and his group arrived at the Lincoln Monument for the last three speeches. But they were so far back that he didn’t hear the words of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. “We couldn’t hear that well,” Suarez said. “So we kept singing.”
Missed march on principle
There were six official leaders of the march: Randolph; King, in his role as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; John Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP; Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League; and James Farmer, president of CORE.
Five days before the march, Farmer was one of 200 people arrested in the town of Plaquemine during a protest in front of City Hall. Former Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson, who was a teenager at the time, said there was little outrage about the jailing, which prevented Farmer from attending the Washington event, because he had yet to become well known.
“James Farmer was just one of hundreds of folk who were in jail,” said Johnson, who was arrested not long afterward as he ran from a man on horseback who’d chased him from a protest and into a barbed war fence, where he cut his arm badly.
Many people from that protest were bailed out of jail but Farmer stayed, according to CORE’s “Jail No Bail” strategy that kept the jails filled with civil-rights activists so local sheriffs couldn’t profit on the arrests, said New Orleans CORE member Jerome Smith, who agreed with Farmer’s decision. “The voice of his spirit was greater than a physical presence,” Smith said.
Johnson and his older brother were active in the movement, and both wanted to travel to the march. But detractors spread the word that the march would likely turn violent, so Johnson’s father only allowed one to attend, fearing both of his sons could be injured or killed.
Dejected, young Calvin stayed home and watched the march on television. He said he was mesmerized by King’s speech, and for the rest of the event, he and his family spent most of their time trying to see his brother in the crowd.
For Johnson, today marks 50 years of family gatherings during which his brother would rattle off the familiar line, “When I was at the March on Washington.” Johnson tries to compete by rolling up his sleeve to show where he was wounded, he said. “But my grandchildren say, “Oh, no, not THE SCAR, don’t show the scar again.”
Even when another CORE leader appeared on television and gave Farmer’s speech, written in the nearby Ascension Parish jail, Johnson didn’t blink an eye.
“I wasn’t thinking, ‘James Farmer should be there,’ ” he said. “I was thinking ‘Calvin should be there.’ ”
Music, sounds remembered
New Orleans CORE members including Rudy Lombard, Doris Jean Castle, Julia Aaron and sisters Alice, Jean and Shirley Thompson left voter-registration projects all over Louisiana and Mississippi to be part of the march. Dodie Smith-Simmons fervently wanted to go and scored a ride from New Orleans on a bus sponsored by longshoremen’s union leader Clarence “Chink” Henry.
“But the young people on the bus weren’t active in the movement. To them it was just a trip,” Smith-Simmons recalled this week. She longed for her New Orleans CORE crew, but she had no way to connect with them. So, on the day of the march, the New Orleans CORE members were scattered.
“I didn’t see anybody that I knew all day,” Smith-Simmons said.
Like Suarez, Jerome Smith was with a group of Mississippi children.
“Flukey had his crew and I had mine,” said Smith, who led his 50 children right next to the speaker’s stand at the Lincoln Memorial. Accounts of the day report that the audience burst into thunderous applause for Smith and the children, rivaled only by the applause for King’s speech. Both Josephine Baker and Lena Horne, two of the performers present that day, came and spoke to his group to praise the kids for their activism in what increasingly was a movement driven by children, he said.
All day, the crowd saw royalty in the civil-rights workers who were, like Smith, dressed in the denim overalls that were the uniform of the movement.
“Those overalls were like a magnet,” he said.
People fed them and thanked them for their work in the movement and clapped when they passed. In turn, they talked with each group about what they were struggling with their hometowns, in an effort to spur voter-registration drives and increased civic engagement in other cities.
Smith, like Suarez, was a bit older than others in the New Orleans CORE chapter. He had been forced out of Southern University after a sit-in and had worked as a longshoreman unloading bananas before he joined up with CORE. While he wasn’t worried about violence, he was concerned that the march might become almost a picnic for people who wanted to hear the day’s musicians: singers such as Bob Dylan; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul,and Mary; Mahalia Jackson; and Marian Anderson.
“I had a wonder, a kind of wonder about whether it could be more than a concert,” he said, recounting how one speaker changed the way the day is remembered. King had a written speech in his hand but ended up going off-script after his close friend, Mahalia Jackson yelled out — like congregants do in New Orleans churches — “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.”
“He transitioned to church,” Smith said. “And we answered the call.”
In the end, the march was vital to the movement’s work, Smith said. “That moment was with us, in us and behind us in all our steps.”
As Smith and his group sat in chairs just a few rows from the podium, he found himself listening to the rhythms of King’s speech. “He was the only vocal musician there,” Smith said. “He leaves spaces and has a simplicity of tone that is like a note from Miles Davis.”
Smith and a few others stayed near the Lincoln Monument long afterward, after much of the crowd had scattered to board buses back home. As they looked beyond the monument’s reflecting pool that had been surrounded by people, all the way down the National Mall, he still felt the imprint of what had just happened.
“In the silence, you still could hear the voices,” he said.