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Eyes on the prize
1963 March on Washington has Charlotte connection
 
Published Thursday, August 22, 2013 8:14 am
by Herbert L. White

Charles Jones remembers the March on Washington for more than Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

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Charles Jones, a 1958 Johnson C. Smith University graduate and leader of the Charlotte sit-ins of 1960, helped plan the 1963 March on Washington.


It was the realization that Americans were finally getting behind the drive for racial equality.


Fifty years after the rally became the seminal moment in the civil rights movement, Jones, a 1958 Johnson C. Smith University graduate and march planner, recalled the anxiety of how it would be received by a country struggling with African Americans’ demands. The organizers’ goal was to push Congress and President John F. Kennedy to pass civil and voting rights laws that would guarantee full participation for blacks. The laws that ultimately resulted – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 – were spurred in part by the rally.


“We were at a moment when the nation and the world was looking at the impact of the sit-ins and freedom rides and voter registration, which were critical to that point,” said Jones, a retired attorney who lives in Charlotte and led the 1960 sit-in protests here. “I was concerned that we articulate the March on Washington as a moment of forcing Congress, the president – all the other folks in policy positions – to enact a voting rights act, public accommodations act and move on.”
Organizers had no idea the rally – which drew an estimated 250,000 people to the National Mall – would transform American race relations. Jones got an idea of how the day would go when he started toward the Lincoln Memorial.


“I walked from Howard University School of Law down and joined the crowd,” he said. “I was about 10 rows from the main event. I had never seen so many people, period. To see that many (people) as far as the eye can see, I went ‘whew, thank you Jesus.’”


Although King’s keynote speech is credited as the rally’s pinnacle, its participants read like a Who’s Who of civil rights activism: labor leader A. Philip Randolph, National Council of Negro Women President Dorothy Height, student leader (and now U.S. Rep.) John Lewis, Congress of Racial Equality founder James Farmer, NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins and Urban League President Whitney Young made appeals from the Lincoln Memorial. Jones, who also participated in the Freedom Rides with Lewis, recalled gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s inspiration to King.


“Martin was somewhat reluctant, not quite sure what he was going to say,” Jones remembered. “Mahalia Jackson said ‘Talk about the dream, Martin!’ When Mahalia said that, apparently something clicked with him.”


Jones, 75, isn’t sure whether he’ll be in Washington for the 50th anniversary recognition of the march due to family obligations. Nonetheless, a part of him will be at the Mall.


“If it’s possible,” he said, “I’m going to try to be physically there, but my spirit will be in that exact spot 10 rows looking out from the monument to the left on that day, smiling and having this moment of ultimate cosmic truth.”



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