Tampa Bay residents remember 1963 March on Washington - WFLA News Channel 8

Tampa Bay residents remember 1963 March on Washington

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On Wednesday, the nation will pause once again to remember the 1963 March on Washington.

President Barack Obama will be joined by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton for a ceremony on Aug. 28.  It's the second of two major events to mark the anniversary of the day known for the iconic "I Have a Dream" speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Tarpon Springs resident Jerry Blitzen won't be there for Wednesday's event, but he was on the frontline of history almost by accident.

"The March on Washington was an absolutely transformational event," he said. "Everybody thought it would fail."

Blitzen was working in Congress in Washington DC in 1963. He was a newspaper man for the then St. Petersburg Times. He recalls that day vividly.

"I didn't have a press pass or anything, so I couldn't get up on the stage, but I had my White House press tag and I wore that around my neck so I could get through the crowds more or less that way," he said.

The now 85-year-old remembers it like it was yesterday.

"I've never seen that many people in one place in my life."

 It was hot he said.

 "It must have been 85 or so. Washington is always hot in the summer."

 A hot long day, but no one complained he said. Everyone he said was peaceful and resolute for the cause at hand, jobs and freedom.

"Everybody also knew that if it was a peaceful march, the groundwork would be set for the passage of legislation in '63," he added.

African-American Youth play big part of 1963 March

Although Blitzen accidentally ended up covering the 1963 march, there are others from Tampa Bay whose sole intent was to be there. Gwendolyn Tim-Powell was one of them.

As a teenager, she loaded into a car in '63 and drove to the March on Washington.

"There was one station wagon and we caravanned to Washington DC. Everything was going well, we had no fear, we were on our way to Washington.  Then in a Jessup Georgia the station wagon broke down," Tim-Powell said.

One of the people in that caravan had family in Jessup, who gave them a place to stay, food and fixed the car. They left the next day, arrived at the march a little late, but they were there.

Tim-Powell said, the importance of the now historical event was not lost on her.

"It was a heady affair for me because we were making history if you will. But I was not sure if I was all the way aware of everything."

Another teen was on a train that day to DC from West Palm Beach. Leola Williams-Butler remembers it well. Her friend, now husband of 50 plus years, gave up the chance to go so she could.

"I feel so blessed even now 50 years later to be a part of that. It was a pivotal moment for me," she said.

She had no fear.

"When you're young, you don't have much fear about a lot things ya know. I wasn't afraid."

It left a major impact. She still has her original program from the march and the train ticket from that trip in '63. She sat in seat 44 of car 11. But the physical momentous don't compare to the feeling left indelibly in her heart.

Now, five decades later, neither Jerry Blizten, nor Gwendolyn Tim-Powell and Leola Williams-Butler were able to go back to relive history on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. But they were all there in spirit.

50 years later

A national celebration was held the weekend of Aug. 24, 2013. It was sponsored by Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. According to their web site, the National Action Network 'is one of the leading civil rights organizations in the nation with chapters throughout the entire United States.' 

The website said the organization was 'founded in 1991 by Rev. Al Sharpton, NAN works within the spirit and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote a modern civil rights agenda that includes the fight for one standard of justice, decency and equal opportunities for all people regardless of race, religion, nationality or gender.

National Action to Realize the Dream March was led by Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King, III. It included  remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Congressman Steny Hoyer, Newark Mayor Corey Booker, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Bernice King, the families Of Emmett Till & Trayvon Martin and many others.'

Local NAACP Group Travels To 50th Anniversary

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People made the trek to the nation's capital by bus to take part in the anniversary celebration. There were four charter buses statewide. One was from Hillsborough County with a diverse group of Tampa Bay citizens and some from as far away as Eustis.

Destiny Jones, a 13-year-old student at Mt. Pleasant Standard Based Middle School in Tampa, was the youngest person on board.

She wanted "to go to the march to see what they've been through, like back in the day, when the marched and just to experience that," as she described.

Her mother Michelle Jones thought it was important to not just tell her about history, but to let her live it.

"I wanted her to have the experience you know so she can learn about the heritage," Jones said. 

There were 55 people on board that charter bus, each filled with fire and zest. Not even an air conditioning issue, change of buses and several hour delay could quench their thirst for the chance to attend the march. For everyone on board, it was personal.

On the day of the march, getting to the march was no easy task. The group, which stayed in Laurel, Md., took a bus to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington. They had to either walk or take a shuttle bus to the DC Metro train terminal, then walk or shuttle to the National Mall.

Once there, the struggles of the past reflected in faces of a hopeful future, as the joined thousands of people stood in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial.

"It's a wonderful experience," said Belinthia Berry.

She was among a group of young people from Hillsborough County's NAACP, taking in the day, talking over the gravity of this moment.

"It's amazing, it's amazing. There are people back at home telling me you're standing in the shoes for me, and I'm so glad to be here to fill those shoes for them as well," she said.

Another young adult on the trip, recent Morehouse College grad Joshua Bent looked to the past and the future.

"As a young man, I'm 22. 50 years from now I'll be able to say I was at that march to promote change and try to stand for my people," he said.

Attorney Natasha Goodley echoed those sentiments.

"It's humbling. It's a very humbling experience," she said. "I'm glad to see the camaraderie. I'm glad to see the unity that we're coming together for this. And I pray that it lasts."

And it wasn't just a momentous day for the folks who weren't old enough to be in the original march, it was a chance for some, like State Senator Arthenia Joyner to right a regret. She missed the original march.

"I was a college student watching it on TV.  I was in Boston," Joyner said. 

When asked if she regretted that, she said it was one of the biggest regrets she'd ever had.

For many people on the bus, it was a similar story.

On the bus trip, there were three NAACP presidents, Dr. Carolyn Collins from Hillsborough County, Pastor Manuel Sykes from St. Petersburg and Sannye Jones from Eustis.

Pastor Sykes said, " When I was young, Martin Luther King came to my church and there was hysteria around that, coming at night, my parents leaving the home secretively... it all impacted me as a kid."

Sannye Jones is proud to be contributing to history by taking this trip.

"I will be contributing to an historical moment that I teach and talk about all the time," she said.

Dr. Collins said the trip is needed, because the fight is far from over.

"The struggle continues voting rights are being taken away," Dr. Collins said. "The African American job unemployment rate across the country is high."

One of the organizer's of the event, Pat Spencer, who has been a member of the NAACP since childhood, missed the original march, but would not miss this one.

"Just to be here is going to be a memory that I will have forever. And I know that maybe in 50 years from now, I won't be around to come, but I will at least being able to see it in this lifetime," she said.

And though none are making the journey back for the celebration to take place on the actual anniversary day, Wednesday Aug. 28, each will be there in spirit. They will be watching national news, reflecting back on their weekend and the significance it holds in their lives.

More about Aug. 28 event from the White House

This Wednesday will mark 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech at the base of the Lincoln Memorial; a moment which served to punctuate a movement that changed America. 

To honor this occasion, President Obama will be joined Wednesday by President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton, members of the King family and other civil rights leaders and luminaries at the Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action event at the Lincoln Memorial, to commemorate Dr. King Jr.'s soaring speech and the 1963 March on Washington.  

This event is open to the public. Doors open at 9:00 a.m. for an 11:00 a.m. program Aug. 28 at the Lincoln Memorial. Guests arriving after 12:00 p.m. are not guaranteed admittance.  In order to access the venue, you must enter from the east side of the Reflecting Pool, on 17th Street, near the World War II Memorial.

For more information on the 50th Anniversary Let Freedom Ring Ceremony and Call to Action Event at the Lincoln Memorial please visit http://officialmlkdream50.com/august-28/

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