Born and raised in McComb, Miss., a town rich in civil rights history, Witherspoon heard the story of Emmett Till all his life and witnessed discrimination first hand as his father, the first black licensed car dealer in McComb and the first black elected official in Pike County, faced harassment and violence on a continuous basis.
Witherspoon will be attending the Aug. 24 March on Washington.
“This march is too important for Mississippi not to attend,” he said, “given that the most oppressive type of laws involving voter suppression, felony disenfranchisement and dismantling public schools to fund charter schools exist here. Mississippi, second only to Louisiana, incarcerates more of their citizens per capita than any other state in the union. So, along with that goes the collateral consequences of felony disenfranchisement. We are a state that has some of the most egregious types of laws in terms of civil rights, and so again, it is necessary for Mississippi to be represented at this march.”
Derrick Johnson, the State President of the NAACP for the State of Mississippi and a member of the National Board of Directors is also attending the march.
“We have one full bus and several cars that our local NAACP units have organized to attend,” Johnson said. “And there are others who may go by different modes whether by plane or train.”
Johnson said many of those attending the march are adults and members of the local branches of the NAACP.
Johnson said due to open enrollment for many of the state’s colleges and universities, the timing of the march does not allow for more students to attend.
“Many students are returning to school this weekend and the next,” he said. “So their participation, I believe, has more to do with that than with a lack of interest.”
“That’s the case with my son,” Witherspoon said. “He’s a freshman at Tougaloo College. But I regret that this bus is not packed with 50 percent of the passengers being young people. That’s something that we’re seriously going to have to work on and that’s passing the torch.”
“There are a lot of young people out there that just don’t know our history,” Beauchamp said. “And we have a lot of elders from that period that are disappointed that no one out there has really grabbed the baton and moved ahead with it.”
Alfonzo White, Executive Director of Action Communication Education and Reform in Duck Hill, is attending the march along with his 4-year-old son, Alejandro.
“This march is just as important now as it was back then,” he said. “The march then was about civil rights, poverty and the right to vote and we are still plagued with those same issues today.”
On June 25 of this year, the Supreme Court took the power of voting and election rules from the federal government and returned it to states with a history of racially charged crimes – like Mississippi – basically overturning the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This means by June 2014, Mississippi voters will have to show ID to vote in the federal primaries.
“This has set us back 50 years,” White said. “And so there is a new struggle in terms of trying to prevent the clock from being turned back. So we need to go and represent and advocate for a more positive and progressive society. Too many people have died for us to have the rights we have for us to sit idly by and watch them be taken away. My son may not understand that now. But in the future, he will be able to look back on that moment as a pivotal point in our history.”
“I’m really frustrated with this generation,” Beauchamp said. “Because a lot of us know the [civil rights] history and there is no time to reinvent the wheel and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel because what’s been done in our past has proven to be successful. We just need to use the same things of our past along with today’s tools to help move things along. This is why this march is important.”
“I think people who attend this march should attend with an open heart and understanding that we have achieved so much and that the only time we lose in these struggles is when we don’t fight,” Johnson said. “I hope this march ignites the sprits of those who attend to understand that we are in a fight. That freedom is an accomplished struggle. And that we can’t bask in the sun of a gathering with hundreds of thousands of people and then go home and sit down.
“The work actually begins on the day after, the 25th. And if we…come back and continue to fight for human dignity – for all people then that is the true measurement of the success of the march.”
Monica Land is a theGrio contributor and a reporter for Mississippilink.com.