It's been 50 years since 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall for the March on Washington, but the struggle for jobs and justice is far from over, say Fresnans reflecting on the day most remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
The march's objectives of economic equality and freedom are still out of reach for many, they say, especially in the central San Joaquin Valley, where there's a dearth of good-paying jobs, and double-digit unemployment ranks among the highest in the state.
"We haven't gotten where we're supposed to be," said Babs Eskin, a retired Fresno social worker and longtime social justice activist.
Fifty years ago, Eskin got on a bus in White Plains, N.Y., and joined a caravan headed to Washington, D.C. She was a "housing checker" for the Urban League, which advocated for civil rights. She was a white woman welcomed by apartment owners who days earlier had turned down black housing applicants.
Eskin made ham-and-cheese sandwiches and brought oranges and coffee for the long ride. Many black Americans were on the bus with her. She had a window seat, and as the bus passed through towns in Delaware and Maryland, she recoiled at the fear and anger on the faces of people standing outside their homes.
"It was just this shock in the center of my heart and my stomach," said Eskin, 79. "Nobody had a gun or a rifle, but you could look at the faces. … It was very frightening."
Eskin's husband, Saul, rode alongside her. He remembers racist messages held up for the passengers to read as the bus rolled by.
Once they reached the National Mall, Babs Eskin said, her mood became joyful. The grounds were filled with people, and "it was like a picnic," she said.
The crowd grew silent for King, she said. When he began to speak, Eskin said, she knew "this is a new voice." King shared more than a dream — he had a vision — and spoke for people who were discriminated against and who had no rights, she said.
The road to civil rights
Also in the crowd on Aug. 28, 1963, James E. Walton listened to King, but it would be years before he fully appreciated the significance of the speech. Walton, now a retired professor of English at Fresno State, was just shy of his 19th birthday when — out of curiosity more than activism — he climbed aboard a yellow school bus provided by the Catholic Church to go from Canton, Ohio, to Washington.
"I saw it as an adventure," Walton said, adding, "I have since become much more politically astute than I was then."
Walton grew up in Alabama, where he said he "drank a lot of colored water." He was born at home because there wasn't a hospital for blacks nearby. In those days, drinking fountains and public institutions such as schools and hospitals were still segregated by race.
Improvements in civil rights have followed in the years since King's speech, including gains for women and gays, he said. The election of Barack Obama as president was possible because of the road King paved, and Walton says he became the first African- American English professor at California State University, Fresno, because of that key moment in the civil rights movement. Walton, 68, taught English at Fresno State for 46 years and is chairman emeritus of the English Department and the Africana Studies program.
But the country has not achieved the racial harmony that King envisioned, Walton said. The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black Florida teen, has shown that stereotypes continue, he said. Trayvon was followed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman and was killed during an altercation. Zimmerman was acquitted.
Walton said, "I think King would say not much has changed — that the child of a white mother and a child of a black mother are treated a different way."
Robert Mikell, 73, a retired Fresno State professor of ethnic studies, shares that concern. He grew up in New Orleans, where he had to ride in the back of city buses because of the color of his skin. He moved to Oakland as a teenager with his family.
In 1963, he was a 23-year-old assistant manager of a Giant Food King store. He watched King's speech on the television at his parents' Oakland home, where a picture of King held a prominent place in the family den.
In 1966, Mikell became the first black manager in the grocery chain and came to west Fresno to run a store. When the store closed after 21/2 years, he went back to school and in 1972 became a full-time professor of ethnic studies at Fresno State. He served as chairman of the program from 1978 to 1990, retiring from the university in 2007 after 35 years.
King helped lay the groundwork for civil rights, Mikell said, but the country should have made a lot more progress in 50 years.
He is deeply concerned by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June to throw out part of the 1960s-era Voting Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination. States already are re-creating barriers for voters, he said.
King worked hard for instituting voting safeguards, Mikell said: "Why are we trying to turn the clock back?"
Voice for nonviolence
Sudarshan Kapoor, a professor emeritus at Fresno State and a member of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Committee since 1983, will be in Fresno on the anniversary, but King will be on his mind.
Kapoor, 79, never got to see the civil rights leader in person, but feels spiritually connected. On the day after the March on Washington, Kapoor arrived in New York City from the Netherlands, where he had been studying.
At Fresno State, Kapoor founded the Peace Garden, a collection of statues that honors King, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez and social worker Jane Addams, and the "Peace and Conflict Studies" program.
Kapoor taught social work courses for nearly four decades before his retirement in 2006, and King's "I Have a Dream" speech was required reading in his classes. "The message is so powerful for racial understanding and harmony in this country," he said. "We need to remember his words, his legacy."
King promoted the peaceful resolution of conflict, but violence is the most pressing problem Americans face today, Kapoor said.
Applying the principles
Samuel Norman, director of operations at The Rios Co., a Fresno marketing and public relations firm, was a black college student working for a senator at the U.S. Capitol in the summer of 1963. He worked in an office, ran an elevator and acted as a tour guide — and was discouraged from talking to white women who rode the elevator.
He watched King's televised speech at an aunt's home. "It was an electric moment," he said. "You knew it was a moment for the ages — a defining moment."
Norman got a bachelor's degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C. And after a four-year stint in the Air Force, he earned a law degree from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. His law focus: minority and woman-owned businesses and minority community economic development. He has served as legal counsel for the Fresno Workforce Development Board and the Oakland Private Industry Council.
Norman said he remains hopeful that challenges facing the country today can be overcome, but it will be harder than in 1963. The country is more divided, and yet widespread poverty transcends color lines, he said. "For many, the dream has faded."
Now more than ever, Norman said, people need to apply the principles of peace, freedom, justice and faith expressed by King a half century ago. Listening to a recording of King's speech is a yearly routine for him, he said. "It's a part of my life."
Some years, he's saddened and some years he's inspired — but he's always moved. "It still speaks to a fundamental truth."
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