Cowetans reflect on King’s speech

by Sarah Fay Campbell

Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s seminal "I Have a Dream Speech."

The 50 years since have brought changes that were almost unimaginable to Americans — white and black — at the time. On Tuesday, several Cowetans reflected on the times and on the speech.

"The speech actually established a blueprint that all groups cling to in order to procure civil rights today," said Coweta County Commissioner Al Smith. The speech helped "give freedom to all people, all creeds, all races, all classes, regardless of political position or financial wherewithal or education," said Smith. "The part that sticks out for me is that there is a line in there that says all people should be judged by the contents of their character and not the color of their skin," he said.

"That still is a poignant point today," he said. "If we could just get that part… man. Everything would be just fine."

"You just can't judge folks by the way they look, but people still try to and they still will," Smith said.

There will be events in Washington, D.C., today to commemorate the march, including a speech by President Barack Obama. This past weekend, there were other commemorative events.

Louise Moore was 17 in 1963. "I remember exactly when it happened," she said of the speech. She "was very enthused about the speech itself. I've gotten a lot from it." "I feel like a lot of things that we have accomplished now — had it not been for Dr. King, some of us would not be in the" positions we are in, she said.

When she was younger, Moore never expected things could be like they are today.

"I have seen a lot over the years, from the way we have progressed, that I thought really would not have happened in my time," she said.

Moore was impressed by King's message of nonviolence. Sometimes you can't always accomplish things with arguments. "Sometimes when you just pray and be a little calm, the Lord will come in and he will handle things in his way."

"I can’t believe it has been 50 years," said Beulah McNair, 84. Many things have changed — some for the better and some for the worse. "We are just hanging in here and praying and thanking God for what he has done for us," she said.

McNair, like Smith, emphasized the Civil Rights movement and King's dream weren't just for black people.

"When King spoke, he was speaking for all of us," she said. "It's not just for the blacks. It's for everybody. All of us can reap the benefits of it," she said. "Each one of us has something to offer this country."

She would have never predicted things being the way they are today, and she never expected to see a black president elected. McNair remembers walking to school and the white kids on the bus would throw spit balls at her when they passed by. "There's a change in all of us," she said.

When she was younger, "we were not treated as human beings." McNair remembers how black women could cook for a white family but couldn't eat with them. "That part I couldn't quite understand," she said. Her mother never had to do that and her family always had cars and land, but "I sat in the back of the bus and the train, too."

Things are much better, but "racism is alive and well," McNair said.

Smith was 10 in 1963. He remembers the black and white waiting rooms and the black and white water fountains.

He remembers buying comic books at Lee King drugstore in downtown Newnan. Blacks could get to-go food from the soda fountain but weren't allowed to sit at the counter. In 1964, on the day the Civil Rights Act passed, Smith and his mother were at Lee King. "I hopped up on the stool and was ready to order a grilled cheese and a milkshake.

She liked to slap me off that stool," Smith said. "She said, 'You know better.' I said, 'Momma, it's ok,'" he said. "She said, 'Not with me.'" His mother was afraid he was going to get the police called on them.

Smith remembers when he used to have to refer to any white person as “sir” or “ma'am,” but young people would call his parents “boy” and “girl.”

"That was just the way things were. I'm so glad that part of the history has passed by," Smith said.

Youth today "have no idea of where they come from and what people have gone through so that they can act indifferent and indignant," Smith said. "There are a certain amount of young people that are respectful, but by and large they just don't have a clue," he said. He hopes that the commemoration celebrations might "spark some kind of remembrance," and maybe parents will sit down and "just have a little reflection on what all this meant and how far we have come."

McNair, a retired school teacher, also reflected on the youth of today. Not all changes since 1963 have been for the better.

Kids today don't appear to see the value of their education. Or the things they have. "In the lunchroom they will take a bite of an apple and throw it down," she said. Or kill people over a pair of sneakers. "They have too much too soon," she said. "Our value system — it's just not there."

And then there's violence. McNair thinks a lot of it comes from television, and wishes parents would monitor more closely what their children are watching.

"Parents need to get control of their children. Teachers can’t teach if they don't have order," she said. When she was teaching, "we had a little more cooperation from the parents." Now, teens barely pay their parents any attention.

Parent need to have "a little more control of their children and the violence, too. That's where it starts, in the home," McNair said.



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