As a luxury, Norma Lewis-Mitchell remembered she could open the bus window for fresh air during the long, hot, muggy summer bus ride she took 50 years ago to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The black late-model Setra touring coach that I rode a week ago with Lewis-Mitchell and 51 others to the 50th Anniversary Rally & March on Washington had many 21st century comforts. The air-conditioned bus the NAACP Missouri State Conference chartered offered reclining seats, WiFi, electrical outlets and flat-screen TVs for the many videos we watched on the 1,100-mile trip.
Kansas City, Johnson County and Bonner Springs NAACP chapter members left Kansas City, picking up other freedom riders at Marshall Junction, Columbia, Kingdom City and St. Louis.
Travelers ages 11 to 79 included three who had made the trip before. We stopped in places that racism would have barred riders from entering 50 years ago.
In 1963, Lewis-Mitchell and others heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. share his dream for civil rights, voting rights and equality, calling for black people to be judged by the content of their character rather than skin color.
The Aug. 24 march was to inspire young people and let the nation know that King’s dream isn’t a reality. Mary Ratliff, president of the Missouri State National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said she saw the anniversary march as the start of America’s third reconstruction.
The first followed the Civil War when troops remained in the South to ensure the safety and civil rights of newly freed slaves. The second reconstruction was the civil rights movement, which King helped lead.
This new push is to get Congress to restore the teeth the Supreme Court this year removed from the Voting Rights Act of 1965, invest in inner cities, make urban schools stellar, improve safety in inner-cities and end racial profiling.
Janet Murguia, a Kansas City, Kan., native who heads the National Council of LaRaza, told the march crowd that Latinos joined African-Americans in the struggle for “freedom, dignity and humanity.”
With our bus stuck in traffic, we watched some speeches on tablets, smartphones and laptops. Martin Luther King III said: “We can and we must do more. We know the dream is far from realized.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton capitalized on King’s reference to blacks being handed an insufficient funds check, saying the check now is being returned stamped “stop payment.” But the money flows to bail out big banks, corporations and the rich.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was one of the speakers 50 years ago, said “we cannot give up.” When we arrived, Lewis was leading a march to the White House.
Some on our bus joined him. Others marched to the Lincoln and then the King memorials.
Signs of “No Justice, No Peace,” included pictures of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot to death last year. George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in that case. Others signs featured “Close Prisons, Not Schools,” and “NAACP: The March to End Racial Profiling.”
Fred Jones, president of the Johnson County NAACP, veered from the group to talk with participants from other cities. A retired Texas farmer gave him ideas on inspiring and teaching youths, which he hopes to use in the Kansas City area.
Anita Russell, Kansas City NAACP president, said the needs today are similar to those 50 years ago, and participation in the march was a chance to bring new ideas and vitality to the civil rights movement.
Seeing so many energized young people made the trip inspiring for Lewis-Mitchell, filling her with hope for the future.
“This is, I believe, the start of something that’s a continuation,” Ratliff said.
Let’s hope so. The nation has come too far to turn back now.