Chicago civil rights vets ‘remix’ historic March on Washington

CHICAGO—As the nation’s capitol transforms back into the 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, Chicagoans reflect on the historic event 50 years ago and how it feels to have a “hometown son” in the White House as they prepare to mark the day in their own way.

TheGrio spoke with three local civil rights leaders who all had a function in the March on Washington. While only one of them traveled to Washington D.C. for the march, the others found creative ways to keep the movement alive and contribute the best way they knew how.

As a student at Loyola University, Robert T. Starks, now 69, helped raise funds for Chicagoans to travel to Washington, D.C. “I went door to door raising money to get people to pay for transportation,” he said. “I did not go, because classes were starting around the same time. I really regret that.” Twenty-five years later, after becoming a political science professor and editor of a magazine, Starks helped organize the Million Man March

Thomas Todd, 73, was a law school student at the time and had to make the tough decision of whether to get involved and possibly get arrested, which would potentially stunt his career as a lawyer or fight for civil rights systemically as a lawyer. He chose the latter.

“On August 28, 1963, I was sworn into the Louisiana Supreme Court, got my license on that day,” Todd said. “I had made a decision two years earlier that I would stay in law school, get the license to practice law, then try to make whatever contribution I could, because at that time, we just didn’t have that many black lawyers.”

While he was in law school in Louisiana at the time, Todd said he and a group of other law students worked with the lawyers who handled cases for students who staged the momentous sit-in at a Baton Rouge restaurant attempting to integrate white-only lunch counters. Twenty years later, becoming a federal prosecutor who practiced constitution and civil rights law dealing, Todd worked with other civil rights veterans to organize the 20th anniversary of the march in Washington D.C.

While Starks and Todd were taking classes, then 31-year-old single mother of small children and newspaper editor Brenetta Howell Barrett made the trek to the Washington D. C. march. After organizing and recruiting people from Chicago’s West Side to attend, Barrett, 81, said during the trip to Washington, D.C., “There was a lot of singing, a lot of communication and camaraderie on the train. People were meeting new people and just talking about the trip for people who had never been to Washington, and in some cases, some people who had never really been outside of the city of Chicago.”

Starks, Todd and Barrett are all on program for the DuSable Museum of African American History’s March on Washington re-enactment on Saturday, at which Barrett will be awarded the 2013 Women’s Fighter for Freedom award.

Putting a 2013 twist on the historic occasion that sparked key anti-discrimination legislation and in accordance with the museum’s 2013 “Do Something” theme, “We are dealing with our local political leaders, activists, councilmen, churches and we’re trying to re-enact and introduce to our younger audience and to people who remember what happened in 1963 and the relevance of what happened in 1963 for issues that are happening in 2013,” explained Sydney Innis, the museum’s manager of public programs.

Much like these leaders’ roles in the March on Washington differed so does their sentiments about Obama’s landmark presidency on the notable commemoration.

Todd said he feels Obama’s presence in the White House during the 50th anniversary of the event that sparked an historic movement is barely symbolic. “I don’t view that as a significant fact in the overall big picture at all, because there are 30 million blacks and Mr. Obama is certainly an African-American, but he has no roots in the black experience,” he said.

Barrett shared, “I think it’s cool to have a president from Chicago in the White House. But that doesn’t mean we have to let up on communicating with him and letting him know what it is that concerns us, and letting him know in a respectful way what our opinions are.

Furthermore, Barrett said, “What he and his family has done is give people internationally a chance to look at an African-American family. I hope that they also look at the different generations who are in the White House.”

“It’s good that he’s a hometown man from Chicago,” Starks said. “While he’s speaking, I hope that he will strike the same kinds of things that Dr. King struck: jobs, voting rights, etc.”

Starks, Todd and Barrett all agree that although several changes have happened to create equality or all, the country still hasn’t come close to completing the original goals of the March on Washington.

Todd noted, “I think that one of the misnomers about the whole thing is that the original march was for jobs and justice, and we’re still having difficulty in both areas.”

“I think we’ve made progress, but I think we have a long way to go. The whole issue of a [post-racial] society is a big farce and one thing that our young people must dispute. We are still living in a racial society in America,” Starks said.

Speaking on specific issues that sprung out of the March on Washington, Barrett said, “I still don’t think there’s enough communication by the general populous with elected officials,” adding that, “It just seems so hard for me to imagine that there’s the intelligence to send people to space and do all kinds of innovative things and lots of things and law enforcement can’t figure out where all these guns are coming from.”

Renita D. Young is a Chicago-based multimedia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.