Today marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where more than a quarter million people participated and gathered near the Lincoln Memorial where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Residents of Montclair—whether they were personally connected to the 1963 march, took part in later commemorative marches, were at Montclair High School when Dr. King visited in 1966, or just had opinions on what the March means today—share their thoughts on this important anniversary.
A Piece of Montclair’s Black History
The Friends of the Howe House honored the anniversary with its MLK I Have a Dream Festival in Nishuane Park this past Saturday. The community event included revitalizing the landscaping around the MLK, Jr. Teardrop Monument, the first monument in Montclair to honor an African American.
Dr. Davida Lindsay Harewood, a Montclair High School history teacher and board member at Montclair History Center, spoke at the event, highlighting the importance of continuing the work.
The 60th anniversary of the March on Wahington should be looked at not as a commemoration but as a continuation. How can we commemorate and continue if African American experiences are removed from textbooks and history classes? Across our nation, there are some who are afraid of an American history that is inclusive of the true African-American experience. African American history IS American history! In NJ, we are leading the nation. I am proud of the work of our leaders who took the bold steps to create the Amistad Bill. The legislation called for all New Jersey schools to incorporate African-American history into the social studies curriculum.
The Montclair History Center has incorporated the Amistad into how we tell the story of Montclair and the many people who have contributed to the growth of the township. Our facilities and exhibits have incorporated many diverse voices of people who have lived in these historic buildings, including the wealthy and enslaved enslavers.
Aminah Toler, chair of the Friends of Howe House Board of Directors, believes Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech still provides inspiration for those fighting to continue what the Civil Rights movement began.
“Sixty years later, we are still fighting, but I am confident that one day, King’s dream will come to fruition for African Americans,” Toler says. “While Montclair prides itself on diversity, we still have struggles in our town. I hope the festival helped to shine the light on work that still needs to be done as a community.”
Dionne Ford, member of Friends of Howe House and author of the memoir Go Back and Get It and co-editor of the anthology Slavery’s Descendants: Shared Legacies of Race and Reconciliation, commemorates the march by service:
My parents and siblings were living in Africa when the march happened because my dad was stationed in Ethiopia with the Air Force, and I wasn’t born yet. So, my family didn’t have any personal stories about the March on Washington, or how it affected them. But I knew that Martin Luther King, Jr. was revered like a saint because my grandparents kept his picture on the wall in their house right next to a painting of Jesus.
The way I commemorate the march is through working with organizations that embody the hopes of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech like Friends of the Howe House, the New Jersey Reparations Council and Coming to the Table – a national organization that brings together descendants of slaves and descendants of enslavers in order to heal the historic harms of slavery. Their name comes directly from the speech. I joined the organization when I began researching my family’s history and I met many members there who had gone to the march themselves or had family members who attended. So, I got to be there vicariously through them.
As a sophomore at Morehouse, David Cummings—Montclair’s Fourth Ward Councilor and a lifelong resident—worked part-time with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the non-violent civil rights group started by Dr. King. He writes:
There are times when we have ironic moments in life. With today being the 60th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it’s ironic while cleaning, I found an old photo book.
I took this photo during my sophomore year at Morehouse for a journalism class. It is from a march in Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1987; taking it was one of the defining moments in my life. If you look closely, the words on the posters being held up say: “Trade With South Africa. Our Blacks for their White.” The one to the right says: “James Earl Ray … American Hero.” A week before, civil rights icon Hosea Williams led a march in Cumming, Georgia, to mark the anniversary of Dr. King’s Birthday. Mr. Williams and a small group of others had rocks and bottles thrown at them in the center of town. Mr. Williams was one of Dr. King’s closest confidants. The following week, we showed up 20,000 strong.
Students from Morehouse, Clark, and Spelman set up buses and were joined by Tuskegee, Tennessee State and Fisk students. We followed Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Dick Gregory and other leaders from the Civil Rights movement. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was so concerned about security that they would not allow Senator Sam Nunn and Congressman John Lewis to cross the street to speak to reporters. We had National Guardsmen lined up and down the route for protection. I was never scared because our numbers were so strong. After our march, we all got back safely.
I started a part-time job with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) public relations team the following week. I can’t explain what working in the organization founded by Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement was like. But this picture reminded me of those days—history is strong.
It wouldn’t surprise me in today’s climate if marches like this one in 1987 become necessary again. What I do know is I showed up then. I will show up again.
Cary Chevat, secretary for Montclair Democrats and the Montclair NAACP, follows in his father’s activist footsteps. Isadore “Izzy” Chevat was a math and social studies teacher in New York City and a student adviser for 40 years. He started the African American Studies class at JHS 231 Queens in 1967 when Cary said, “No other teacher, Black or white, wanted to teach it.” Cary shares these photos of his late father at the March on Washington.
Roger Terry, a third-generation Montclair resident, is the current president of Montclair NAACP. With a 35-year career in the local police department, he became Deputy Chief and also held the position of Deputy Mayor on the Montclair Township Council. He fondly recalls watching the March on Washington with his family:
I was in the 8th grade during the March on Washington. We had just one television in our house, and my family gathered around and watched the event. I remember the excitement, but what stood out most to me was seeing how emotional my parents, grandmother, and aunts were as they watched. I was young, but it made me understand the significance of that moment.
Knowing what was going on across the country, particularly in the South, made me appreciate living in the diverse town of Montclair. While racial issues certainly existed, there was an underlying optimism. To me, it was an exciting time. It was a time when you could see a strong sense of togetherness with African American people coming together for one cause. And the country actually helping them out—the President was even listening to Dr. King.
Fast forward sixty years, and it’s disheartening to see efforts to erase Black history, diminish voting rights and witness an increase in racially motivated gun violence. The current state of affairs is deeply saddening.
Ghana Imani Hylton was raised in Montclair. After over a decade in NYC, she returned to raise her own family here. She reflects on the past and the present:
The March on Washington was never just about a speech, a person, a dream. It was about a pivotal point in time, where we were seemingly pointed in the direction of better opportunities. It was a moment in time when different religions, gender identities, cultures, ages and races stood shoulder to shoulder and said, “This will not do! What you do to my neighbor is wrong! We all deserve fair treatment!”
In my teens, I felt like progress was finally happening. I believed that the seeds planted by Martin Luther King, Ida B. Wells, Thurgood Marshall, Marcus Garvey, Mary White Covington, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, John Lewis, Dorothy Height, Julian Bond and Fannie Lou Hamer were finally becoming a reality. Our world was slowly changing and starting to make sense. And my future children would be able to harvest the fruits of their labor. And I was so looking forward to it!
Brown v. Board of Education, The Little Rock Nine, The Four Girls, The Freedom Riders—all the heartbreak and devastation and small victories. I knew the history, thanks to my family teaching it to me. I was so proud to be on the other side of their hard and often dangerous work and their huge sacrifice of safety, property, jobs, dignity and, in some cases, their very lives.
I was younger then and far more optimistic. Now I’m more realistic. Now it feels like it wasn’t as much progress as it was change. And things are still changing. And often in directions that I’m uncomfortable about, scared even. We seem to be going backward instead of forward, regressing in pivotal areas instead of progressing. It feels like I let my kids, and your kids, down. Because they are fighting many of the same battles of racism, gender inequities, socio-economic inequities and in a seemingly just as hyper-divided world.
So as much as I am grateful for the memory and the work that led to the March on Washington, I wonder why we haven’t really learned the most important lessons the march was trying to teach us. We know better, but we aren’t collectively and consistently doing better. Revolution and freedom are verbs. One can’t passively liberate the oppressed. We must all be active in the liberation of marginalized and oppressed people! Even if, especially if, that group is not you! Leverage your privilege and your power.
I think the people deeply involved in the March on Washington would be as frustrated, nervous, confused, tired, angry, and disappointed as I am. But they would never give up the “fight.” And neither will I. Not ever!
The Gilmores: Past & Present
My husband’s father, the late Dr. Edwin C. Gilmore, was among the nearly 300,000 people who marched in the 1963 March on Washington. Together with his brother-in-law and friends, they carried signs that read, “We Demand Voting Rights Now!” and listened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech.
In 2013, my husband Greg, our children and I retraced the very path he took, a tribute to honor his legacy, at the 50th anniversary March on Washington. At the time, we sensed that race relations were moving in the wrong direction. The killing of Trayvon Martin the year before and the increasing political polarization were warning signs. Today, in 2023, things feel much worse. We are witnessing voter suppression, attempts to erase Black history in schools, a growing racial wealth gap, the Supreme Court’s striking down of affirmative action in college admissions, and an increase in violence against Black people. For my family, the anniversary is a sad reminder of the lack of progress.