Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that attracted hundreds of thousands of people from various backgrounds and one purpose: to register their support of change in America’s perpetually strained race relations.
At the time, I was 10 years old, spending my first full summer in West Virginia where we had moved from the Washington area the year before. I remember it on television and obviously there and wasn’t a player. I remember segregation in the DC area and the march on the Glen Echo amusement park but in West Virginia, there weren’t many African Americans. One was the veterinarian who took care of our two Beagles.
But reading all the gushy coverage in some of the same newspapers that diminished the event in their annoyingly condescending way when it actually happened is a bit much. The Richmond Times Dispatch, which, if one looks through the dusty stacks, hardly supported integration and like many Southern newspapers held “Negroes” in perennial contempt.
These were still the days when “Negroes” who traveled south of the Mason-Dixon line consulted the “Green Book” available at Esso gas stations (if they were permitted to enter) that told them what hotels, rooming houses and restaurants might let them in.
I was looking at a photo the other day of passenger cars on the old Atlantic Coast Line railroad — a major conduit from New York and DC through Richmond and on to Florida and other points South. Coach cars were segregated with “colored” signs. The “colored” cars had basically the same seats but the “white” seats had headrests and the “colored” ones didn’t. Separate but not exactly equal.
Apparently, the RTD didn’t really note Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech, but then The Washington Post pretty much missed it. The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. ran this headline: “Washington Is Clean Again with Negro Trash Removed.”
That kind of treatment was typical. Just a few years before, there was a big court martial when a drunken Marine drill instructor forced boots at Parris Island to go on a forced march in the South Carolina salt marshes. The boots got stuck in the mud and some drowned when the tide came up.
When photos of witnesses were released, they included one black Marine and several white ones. Some southern papers, including the one serving Wilmington, N.C. airbrushed the black face away before printing it. Even the Associated Press would send story after story about “How Negroes Behave,” emphasizing debauchery, alcohol, shiftlessness and adultery.
So, it is something of a hoot, and also rather sad, about how some of those very same Southern newspapers are trying to rebrand and reposition themselves with gushy story after story this week about the march.
The tragedy is that many younger readers won’t ever know what the papers were really saying back in the day. Meanwhile, you have the old style racism thrusting its head again with new voter ID laws in North Carolina, Texas and soon, Virginia. A Republican creation, these cards are designed to cure a non-existent crisis with voter fraud and keep African-Americans, Latinos, the elderly and the poor from casting their ballots.
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