One summer some 60-odd years ago, Bill Hicks safely crossed a street in Raleigh, N.C. and was forever changed.
Having grown up in a “Roosevelt-liberal” household, with a father who taught philosophy at North Carolina State, Hicks was perhaps naturally inclined to be sympathetic toward instances of injustice.
He spent his summers playing baseball with kids from the working class-but-upscale Black neighbourhood of Oberlin.
One afternoon, they started in to buy drinks at a store to cool off.
“We walked over to Hillsborough Street — the big street across from North Carolina State — and they sent me into a little store to buy everybody drinks because they knew they couldn’t go in,” Hicks, now 70, told us by phone recently. “And I didn’t even know that until they said that, so that kind of thing struck me as being pretty bad.”
The moment helped catalyze a lifelong concern for equal rights, one that a few years later led him to board a Trailways bus as part of the University of North Carolina’s Student Peace Union one bright August morning to take the five hour drive to Washington.
We recently tracked down Hicks, who would go on to join highly successful folk revival group The Red Clay Ramblers, to discuss his recollection of the March, which took place 50 years ago Thursday.
Hicks admits his memory of the event itself is spotty, but he referred us to a friend who vouched for his attendance.
“I think the thing that really struck with me was this sense that there were thousands of people who agreed that we were doing the right thing, and that they were with us right there literally,” Hicks said. “I felt a sense of brotherhood and solidarity with all the people around me, that I had people I didn’t know, would never know their names, never see again, but certainly a sense that we were all together.”
We spoke with several other attendees, and many agreed with Hicks that the event itself, while important at the time, was not regarded with anywhere near the same reverence as it is today.
“It’s a symbol — it’s much easier for people to look at something defined and specific,” Hicks said. “The March on Washington was just basically one day — a lot of terrific photographs and a terrific speech, and maybe some other speeches we don’t remember — Bob Dylan was singing — it was a moment. It was a Super Bowl of civil rights.”
Hicks recalls returning to Chapel Hill late that night, with everyone sleeping on the way back — a somewhat apt detail to recall given what he encountered when he returned.
“The movement [in Chapel Hill] had been kind of betrayed by liberal leaders who thought they could convince segregated business owners to stop being segregated — and they didn’t manage to do that. So I think there was a lot of bitterness, not about the march, but just that, ‘Well, we did this still nothing happening… ‘ “
Hicks elaborated in a follow-up email:
There was a strong feeling in Movement circles that had we simply continued to have marches and sit-ins, with no abatement, the recalcitrant businesses would have given in. This feeling of betrayal allowed the remaining committed protesters to become more frustrated, and the protests to become in a way more radical in the fall, with big sit-ins closing the streets. This, in turn, allowed elected officials and police authorities to make a decision to arrest leaders, and the leaders were eventually sentenced to prison, and then paroled with a ban on even living in NC.
Indeed, just four months later, he witnessed the ultimate symbol of Southern backwardness.
“I went down to the capital in December, sat on a bench and watched a Klan rally march thru capitol, everybody was just fine with that.”
The real, and most tragic, turning point of the civil rights era occurred in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he says.
“The most important that happened in America about civil rights in a way was the assassination of Martin Luther King in ’68, which destroyed the best leader that people who were trying to make things really different had.
50 years after the March, Hicks remains dismisses the premise that its goals are no longer relevant.”Only 5 years later King’s voice was gone, then you end up with sort of weaker voices, and that matters to continuing to get things done or just to convince people.”
“It blows my mind that the Supreme Court would rule the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional this past spring,” he says. “I mean that was one of the major milestones, and it was a way that people who had been disenfranchised got franchised.
“I just saw a story in North Carolina this morning a Black lady who’s been voting 75 years won’t be able to vote under the new law because her birth certificate doesn’t say exactly the same thing as her driver’s licence.It doesn’t take account of the fact that basically poor people, black and white too, who don’t best advantages don’t end up with great credentials all time, but she’s already voted. So all of it is just terrible.
“I’m hoping there will be some kind of reaction.”
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