Though it was 50 years ago, Denton resident John Paul Eddy, 81, said his memories of the March on Washington are still fresh in his mind as he recalls various details about the event.
The former University of North Texas professor said he remembers standing next to prominent black leaders who fought for civil rights in their communities and across the country.
He also remembers standing next to Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, which is still referenced today as a defining moment in civil rights history.
“We want the world to hear us and to understand that we wouldn’t just go away,” Eddy said.
He said many people were threatened, intimidated, beaten and killed for their beliefs that everyone deserved an equal opportunity in America.
The march paved the way for two major victories of the civil rights movement — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
King was assassinated while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., for helping lead a movement that convinced Congress to pass civil rights legislation.
“We thought our work was done back then,” Eddy said. “Things are a lot better now than they were then, but more can be done.”
Wednesday marked the anniversary of the March on Washington, in which Eddy participated.
Hundreds of thousands converged on the National Mall to take part in what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
Pictures show that demonstrators filled the National Mall, stretching from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the base of the Washington Monument.
Marchers were men and women, young and old, black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American, Eddy said.
At the time, Eddy said he did not grasp the importance of the march.
As a white man in Minnesota, Eddy said he did not witness any of the hatred that blacks experienced in the South.
He said he began to understand why the movement was so important after he became more involved.
“We all deserve equal rights. It doesn’t matter who you are. We all deserve to be treated equally,” he said.
It’s been 50 years since the march, and Eddy said there are new challenges that the U.S faces.
He said voting rights, women’s rights and social equality are being threatened.
Today, it would be hard for a message that was delivered from Washington to reach as many ears as King’s speeches did, said UNT history professor Todd Moye in a recent interview.
Moye said America is more fragmented today than it was in the 1960s, noting that there were only three TV networks, and it was easier to grab the public’s attention.
“We just have way too many outlets grabbing our attention these days,” he said.
Many of the issues that Eddy referenced are causing controversy in Texas, particularly women’s health and voting rights.
“Some of the issues are new, but some are still the same,” he said. “We need people to pay more attention to the issues because we are a stronger country when we work together.”
President Barack Obama issued a proclamation Wednesday in honor of the 50th anniversary.
Obama encouraged all Americans to observe the anniversary with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities that celebrate the March on Washington.
He also wrote in the proclamation that Americans should never forget the work done by civil rights leaders because when one American gets a raw deal, it jeopardizes justice for everyone.
Eddy said American progresses when everyone works together.
“People just need to do a better job of paying attention to what’s going on around them,” he said. “What’s happening in the country is very unfortunate and we should be concerned enough to do something about it like what was done 50 year ago.”
JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @JDHarden.