Festivities on the last day on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom culminated with a march and a series of speakers. The Metropolitan Police Department and various other government entities joined together to give these speakers the opportunity to speak before an adoring crowd.
One of those speakers is Arkansas’ very own, former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Prior to the anniversary, President Clinton said:
Most of us who are old enough remember exactly where we were on Aug. 28, 1963. I watched the March on Washington unfold on national television from a reclining chair in the den of my house in Hot Springs, Ark. Dr. King’s ringing, rhythmic speech brought tears to my eyes, and I remember thinking that, when it was over, my country would never be the same.
Clinton was a 17 years old teen who had shaken hands with President John F. Kennedy that summer, and was awaiting to start his senior year of high school.
He said when King gave his iconic speech, it reinforced the idea that whether we like it or not, when basic human rights and economic security are denied to some of us, we all suffer.
When Clinton’s name was called to speak, the soggy crowd came alive.
“It was an empowering moment, but also an empowered moment,” former president Clinton said to the crowd. “What a debt we owe those people who came here 50 years ago.”
Arkansas commonly has a mild climate; a state rich in natural beauty, and a penchant for southern hospitality, but on August 28, 1963, it was the hottest day in Little Rock, Arkansas, for that year – a scorching 106°F.
While Clinton didn’t represent Arkansas at the March, one Arkansan did, Ernest Dumas, a southern Arkansas reporter. He drove from the Natural State to Washington, D.C., not expecting to see much. But after seeing the thousands upon thousands and hearing the words of countless people [namely Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and Daisy Bates (another Arkansas native)] Dumas had this to say:
The march and King’s epochal speech, is the most electrifying in American history because of its eloquence and its global reach at the dawn of the television age, are celebrated again this week by declamations from current leaders and by endless columns and essays that do not do justice to the event.
What lens does these two men see the world from? They see it from the Arkansas perspective.
The State of Arkansas was no different to many southern states of the time. By 1900, African Americans in Arkansas were in a conundrum, like the rest of the South. These noble people were legally politically disfranchised and increasingly segregated in the public sphere by peonage contracts with white landowners, among other things.
According to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, 226 blacks were lynched in Arkansas between 1882 and 1968; this is just those that were recorded.
When then-Governor Jeff Davis was running for reelection, he made comments like, “We may have a lot of dead Negroes in Arkansas, but we shall never have Negro equality….I would rather tear, screaming from her mother’s arms, my little daughter and bury her alive than to see her arm in arm with the best nigger on earth,” as part of his campaign.
He went on to serve three terms and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1906.
Students at Philander Smith College were met by Bill Hansen, a white SNCC worker from the Atlanta office, who came to train and educate the students and residents sit-in tactics. African American Arkansans across the state went into eateries seeking service, but instead was met with verbal and physical abuse by Arkansas whites, throughout the spring and summer. Often times these students and potential patrons sat for hours seeking service only to be assaulted.
Just a few weeks after the March, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four African American girls caused things began to change in Arkansas, specifically downtown Little Rock. Little Rock white businessmen, headed by James Penick, president of Worthen Bank and Trust Company, formed a Downtown Negotiating Committee to end segregation in Little Rock, in phases.
Business leaders began to allow African Americans eat at their main lunch counters, a couple years later began hiring them as clerks. It’s believed that Penick realized that African Americans were more determined than ever, that the death of the these innocent girls caused a shift in southern white thinking, or even that local business leaders business were suffering.
Whatever the reason, while the business leaders began to have a change of heart, the state government still have a delegation in Washington united against the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts group.
Then there’s the Elaine Massacre (1919), the lynching of John Carter (1927), and almost a decade earlier before the March, Arkansas truly etched its place American history with the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, where Governor Orval Faubus and other state government people were so against desegregation that from 1958 to 1959 (the Lost Year) it allowed the school district to be closed, rather than to integrate them.
This is the lens former President Bill Clinton and reporter Ernest Dumas saw the March from. These two men may not have condoned the actions of their fellow Arkansans, but its the world they understood – whether it was right or wrong.
So while I, a native Arkansan who hails 16 miles from where Bill Clinton was born, stood out in the crowd on this rainy Wednesday, and having seen and heard musicians, actors, public figures, and politicians, I’m reminded of America: the nation that stands above and beyond any country on Earth. One that has its ups and downs, its good days and bad days, and its organic opportunities that are constantly evolving.
America is for all people, because it was built by all who have ever stood on it’s soil.