Marching for change

By Erich Wagner (Photo/National Archives)

Looking back on the March on Washington, it’s easy seeing it as a watershed moment for the civil rights movement. But Ferdinand Day remembered being happy that the event exceeded the low expectations held by many at the time.

“I was very impressed,” said Day, who attended the August 28, 1963, rally and made history himself by becoming the first black Alexandria School Board chairman. “The first march gave us hope, with all types of people coming to Washington expressing the same views that we had about civil rights and freedom and jobs.”

The many events marking the 50th anniversary of the march and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech over the past week have Alexandrians thinking about their connections to the seminal moment as well as how race relations in the city have evolved.

At the time of the march, Alexandria was still steeped in racism and segregation, Day recalled.

“It was a typical southern city with all of the problems of the Deep South,” he said. “As a result of the march, people began a trend to correct some of those things. It was the beginning of real hope that there would be greater justice and fair play in the area.”

Audrey Davis, acting director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, said that it helped roll back discriminatory practices throughout the city.

“At stores, African-American women couldn’t try on something basic like hats or gloves so they just had to buy them, because it was thought that white people wouldn’t buy them,” said Davis, whose father attended the March on Washington. “That was the way it was throughout the South, and it was certainly that way in Virginia.

“I think a lot of attitudes changed [in the wake of the march]. A lot of people worked together, and [a lot of people] saw whites and blacks worked together and could be a part of something really big and that these rules about segregation made no sense and had no reason.”

Day said the collaborative nature of the March on Washington sparked a similar effort in the Port City.

“There has been progress, and it was brought about by blacks and whites, the human relations commission, the NAACP and the Urban League all working together to bring change,” Day said. “There are still far greater things that need to be done. … There needs to be greater improvement and enlightenment of progressive ways to improve job opportunities, housing, incarceration and school problems.”

Although City Councilor John Chapman had not been born early enough to witness the worst instances of local segregation, he still has seen the progression of race relations.

“There has been a huge shift … for the good,” Chapman said. “People can now expect to sit in classrooms and be graded on an equal basis as their peers of a different color.”

While race relations are still important, Chapman sees the next front in the fight for equal rights coming not along racial lines, but socioeconomic ones.

“We are experiencing a transition from issues of racial inequality to economic inequality,” he said. “How we deal with inequality when it comes to economic opportunity and prosperity, that’s a challenge for my generation. We had to dig down deep and look at how we structure organizations and government and evaluate how people continue to live and ask, ‘Are they able to in fact pursue the American dream, and what does that mean?’”

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