WASHINGTON — Richard T. Mackoul couldn’t remember exactly where he was standing
on Aug. 28, 1963. But he remembered buses “as far as I could see” lining the road around the National
Mall. He remembered the crowd going silent while Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his 16-minute speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and then he remembered singing “We Shall Overcome” as loud as he could on the long drive home to Worcester. “I used to have a lot of the speech memorized,” he said in a recent interview. “Martin Luther King was a huge part of my life.”
Fifty years later, Mr. Mackoul stood Saturday next to the reflecting pool with his wife, Valerie. His right hand on her left shoulder, they listened intently as Martin Luther King III spoke to the tens of thousands of people who had gathered for the four-hour commemoration on the Lincoln Memorial. “Unbelievable,” Mr. Mackoul said, shaking his head at the end of Mr. King’s speech. “It was the same spot, the same energy ... he had everything.”
Mr. Mackoul and his wife traveled with eight other people from the Worcester area who went to Washington with the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The group left on Friday evening and were scheduled to return early Sunday. The group traveled with about 240 other people in a convoy of five buses. The trip was organized by the Boston branch and also included people from Cambridge, Providence, South Middlesex, Brockton, Mystic Valley and Merrimack Valley. “They all still have a dream,” said Yvonne Brown, the New England-area conference liaison and a member of the Worcester branch as the group left the event. She has been in the association since the 1970s and said her mother was an active member before her.
The event was an important one for the Worcester branch, which was inactive for several years. It is trying to rebuild its base, though, since it was officially recognized by the organization in January. “It was an excellent trip,” said Patricia Yancey, president of the branch. “It was great being here with so many people from across the nation who are passionate about civil rights.” William S. Coleman III of Worcester, a self-proclaimed history buff, said that he there needs to be a change. “As much as we’ve made progress, today we’re not there,” he said. Mr. Coleman pointed to Worcester, which he argues should have more local representation by black, Hispanic and Asian people. “Politics are local,” he said.
The bus pulled out from Providence about 9:45 p.m. Friday and arrived at Robert F.Kennedy Memorial Stadium at 6:30 Saturday morning. Soon after leaving, travelers were encouraged to tell others why they were making the trip. As he did in 1963, Mr. Mackoul sang a few stanzas written by Charles Tindley. “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe/ We shall overcome someday.” He said that it looked as if there were fewer people at the event on Saturday than he remembered 50 years ago.
“There were no fences. All the areas were packed with people,” and there was not enough room to sit down, he said while lying on the grass with the group on Saturday morning. “The sound was better than this,” he added as airplanes flew over the National Mall, making it difficult to hear the speeches. Mr. Mackoul also recalled a stronger sense of urgency in 1963. “You listen to (Rev. King’s) speech and you ask yourself, ‘could it have been that bad?’ But it was ... a lot of people were getting murdered.”
A member of the NAACP for several years, Mr. Mackoul said that even with the dangers freedom riders faced, he would have still liked to go. “It’s pretty amazing how screwed up this country was at that point in time,” he said. The speakers included the Rev. Al Sharpton, House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Attorney General Eric Holder, Newark Mayor Corey Booker, the family of Trayvon Martin, and the family of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was beaten and then shot to death in 1955 after he was accused of flirting with a white woman.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was also in attendance. And while the Boston NAACP Patricia Yancey of Holden, president of the Worcester branch of the NAACP, wrote in an email Friday that President Barack Obama might attend, he was not at the event. He is scheduled to appear at Wednesday’s events. One of the most well-received speakers was 9-year-old Asean Johnson, of Chicago, who spoke after U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the last living speaker from the 1963 event. “Congressman John Lewis was the youngest speaker and now, 50 years later, I am the young-est speaker,” Asean said. He said he will march for education, justice and freedom. “Every school deserves equal funding and resources,” he said. “I have a dream that we shall overcome.”
Ms. Brown said his speech was particularly memorable to her. “The circle is being completed and strengthened,” she said, noting the importance of getting young people involved to carry on the cause. “Everyone is still committed ... they have not been discouraged,” she said of the speakers.
Trayvon Martin’s face was plastered on countless posters, T-shirts and other mementos. The Florida teenager was shot and killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman last February. Mr. Zimmerman was found not guilty by a Florida jury, in a ruling that sparked outrage across the country. In response to the case, the NAACP passed out posters to attendees urging them to “support Trayvon’s Law,” which would abolish stand your ground laws throughout the country. His name was like a battle cry for those attending, especially when his family took the stage.
The same was especially true for Mrs. Yancey. “He was there to protect Trayvon Martin and killed him” because of profiling, she said, echoing the theme of the weekend. “We still have a long way to go.”
Mrs. Yancey said that even in recent years she has faced racism and “preconceived
ideas” based on her skin color.
She recalled a time when she was followed in a clothing store, a pastor whom she didn’t know calling her a “soul sister,” or a woman at a supermarket parking lot years ago who called her son “boy.” Her friend of at least 15 years and a member of the Worcester branch, Cynthia Carruthers, also made the trip. She said her husband was president of the branch in the late 1960s and that she had been unable to attend the march 50 years ago.
Other major issues addressed in the speeches were immigration and voting identification
laws, as well as equal rights for gay, lesbian and transsexual people. Also from the Worcester branch was Leslie Agyemfra, who was recently named secretary for the group. “It gave me inspiration. It made me feel like I could work a lot harder for civil rights and equal rights,” she said. Ms. Agyemfra said that she enjoyed being around such a large group of black people from across the country. “There are a lot of passionate people,” she said. “It made me feel like I’m not doing enough” in the movement.
The crowd was over and over again encouraged to do just that — commemorate the event, but go home and agitate for the cause. “The dream is far from being realized,” Mr. King said, and that if everyone does their
part, “a change is going to come.”
When he was 17 years old, Mr. Mackoul told a reporter that he hoped to see little or no
discrimination in the country. “Then it will be like one big picnic and we will be like one big family,” he said at the time. Mr. Lewis reiterated that dream. “We are one people ... we are one family,” he said. “We can not give up. We can not give in.”