CONYERS - Fifty years ago, the paths of Cheryl Board and Claude Sitton crossed in Washington, D.C., among the thousands who heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Though neither met that day both Board and Sitton said the event had a profound effect on their lives.
Board, a Rockdale County resident who runs a consulting business, was 5 years old when she went with her father to Washington. She said going to hear King speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was not particularly planned. Her family just happened to be in northern Virginia that day visiting relatives and her father decided to go.
Board said she didn’t understand the significance of the speech at the time, but she was becoming aware of segregation during that trip. Board explained she and her grandmother were light-skinned, but learned where the line was drawn when both walked into a Woolworth’s store to get a milkshake.
“When I was told I wasn’t allowed to sit at the counter because it was for whites only, I looked at myself and I looked at her, who looked more white than black. I looked at the people at the counter and said, ‘We’re white,’ and she said, ‘No, you're not,’” Board recalled. “And that’s when I started to understand my own history. It made a big mark on my life from that moment. At the time I didn’t know what the speech meant. I just knew it meant something about all of us being together. I was fighting for the right to sit at the Woolworth’s counter.”
On Aug. 28, 1963, Sitton was a reporter with the New York Times and was on assignment in Washington to write a news analysis on the event. That day he walked into the crowd early to talk with people and then went back to his hotel room to watch the event unfold on television.
“I wanted to see what Jack Kennedy and Bobby (Kennedy) saw. I wanted to see what Lyndon Johnson saw because he was vice president then, and I wanted to see what Congress and the American people saw,” he said. “That was the advantage of seeing it broadcast on television as opposed to being in the crowd. My understanding later was that some of the people in the crowd couldn’t hear what was going on.”
Sitton grew up in Conyers and covered the Civil Rights Movement for the Times during the 1960s. He moved to Oxford after retiring and currently lives in Atlanta.
In his analysis for the Times of that day, Sitton wrote there was doubt whether the concerted Civil Rights Movement would be successful, and it did not have much to show for three years of protests and mass arrests.
That changed in 1963. Americans watched from their home television sets fire hoses and dogs released on black protesters in Birmingham, Ala. They also saw Gov. George Wallace stand in a doorway at the University of Alabama to prevent African American students from registering, and they heard the news of NAACP Field Secretary Medger Evers’ murder in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss. home.
Sitton described 1963 as the biggest year in the Civil Rights Movement in part because of television. “It brought the Civil Rights Movement into the living room of all Americans,” he said.
“When it was Little Rock in 1957 and 1958, television was not that big but it got big and was capable from the standpoint of new ways for correspondents to make their feeds to New York in 1963,” he said. “So all of these things came together to make ’63 one of the most active and productive years of the movement.”
Sitton and Board both agreed that the United States has made important strides in race relations over the years, however, they also believe there is room for improvement. Board said she is saddened by the disrespect many people have for President Barack Obama that she believes comes from him being an African American.
“It saddens me to see that here 50 years later to see the progress that I know Dr. King would be beaming about and hear the verbal disrespect the office gets because his skin is slightly darker,” she said.
Sitton remembered that the purpose of the march was for economic equality and that the event was officially called The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He said jobs were a big factor then and still are today.
“We still have problems,” he said. “And the racism that is displayed very subtly today has, I’m sorry to say, people on both sides of the color line guilty of it.”