Find other stories in our civil rights series, along with video and links
Gainesville residents are following their own paths to celebrate today’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, including talking about what his words have meant to them through the years.
Lula resident Moredcai Wilson was part of the March on Washington in 1963 and said participating was uncertain and scary. But he fought his fear to hear King speak words at the Lincoln Memorial that would propel the fight for civil rights forward.
“I had to go,” he said. “Go or die.”
He was worried about mobs, violence and rioting, but the then-Boston resident said he decided to leave it up to fate and got on a Greyhound bus.
More than 200,000 joined Wilson that day to rally for jobs and freedom. King had a dream that was shared by many people across the country, including black residents in Gainesville and throughout the state.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” King said 50 years ago.
Wilson said the event had a great impact on his life. The march allowed Wilson to talk and visit with a diverse group of people, which was what some people were trying to stop by keeping the races separate.
“It makes (me) feel good that I was a part of it,” Wilson said. “I have seen major changes that have taken place for all of us. Black and white (people) got an education and started to get to know one another to break down barriers and walls that used to exist.”
Gainesville resident Ruby Brawner said she followed King over the years, including the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., and in an earlier 1963 march in Birmingham when he and other protesters were drenched by fire hoses and attacked by dogs. She said she learned from King to be persistent and not to pay attention to offensive remarks. Discrimination is in both races, she said.
“They’re ignorant,” Brawner said. “If they knew better, they’d do better.”
She follows King’s example of not fighting back and turning her cheek. She’s also fiercely religious and involved in her church.
“He believed in peace,” Brawner said. “Fighting don’t solve (any) problems, that’s what I got from Dr. King.”
Faye Bush, a longtime community activist in Gainesville, met King in Atlanta and has stayed in touch with the family. Daughter Jackie Mize said King’s speech spoke what many black people felt.
“He spoke the hearts of all black Americans and white Americans,” Mize said of King’s dream of freedom and equality. “It wasn’t just black because you had a lot of poor whites that were struggling, too.”
Some Gainesville residents are expected to remember King’s words with the country’s first black president, Barack Obama. Former Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell and his daughter, Lilla Bleu Bell, are attending the Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action event at the Lincoln Memorial with Obama and former Presidents Bill Clinton Jimmy Carter.
The Bells have front-row seats to history at the events in Washington, D.C. The sophomore at Gainesville High School said she has friends from different countries, including her best friend from India. Some older black residents said they didn’t think they would ever see a black president in their lifetimes, but it’s normal to the 14-year-old.
“Everyone deserves to live equally in this nation, which is kind of like a melting pot of a bunch of different ethnicities,” Bleu said. “I believe we should all coexist peacefully and so does he, so that’s something we both have in common.”
While progress can always be made, she feels King’s dream has been achieved.
“We certainly have come a long way and of course people are coexisting, living peacefully, like interracial couples ...,” Bleu said. “I’m happy that we are how we are.”
Some King followers and tens of thousands of others aren’t as confident and optimistic as Bleu. The Rev. Al Sharpton and others kicked off events Saturday with another March on Washington, focused on how far the county has come on civil rights, but also emphasizing areas that need improvement. Speakers, including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the King children, stressed several concerns in the fight for civil rights, including protecting the right to vote, fighting racial profiling and pushing back on “Stand Your Ground” laws.
“As someone who participated in the voting rights movement, as someone who gave a little blood on the bridge in Selma, Ala., almost 50 years ago, for the right to vote, for the right to participate in the democratic process, I do not believe that a would-be voter should show (identification) to avoid fraud,” Lewis said in a video statement on voter identification laws on his website. “We don’t have a great deal of fraud in the political process in America. We need to open up the process and let everyone come in. Make it easy and simple. To be able to vote should be as easy as getting a glass of water. One person, one vote.”
Willie Mitchell, Gainesville resident and member of the Gainesville City School Board, went with some family and friends to the march. He hoped the weekend rally gave people momentum to go back to their neighborhoods and push for grass-roots change.
“I can see people all over the country saying, ‘We have had enough, and we need to make things better,’ and I hope that happens.” Mitchell said. “Probably (the) most beautiful part of (the march) was that it was not about race directly, indirectly it was because you have people of certain races that are disproportionately singled out, but people were there for the simple fact that they want to see what they consider the right thing to be done in this country and constitutional rights for everyone.”
Mitchell said Gainesville needs more black-owned businesses, help reducing high African-American unemployment and underemployment rates, reforming the justice system for minorities and mentoring kids.
“There’s a tremendous job that we have to do and we just have to have people that’s willing to make that commitment to bring that change,” he said. “Not talk about it, but step up and do something about it. When that happens, we’ll be a lot closer to reaching the dream.”