Witness recalls King's speech

Witness recalls King's speech

In 1963, a 19-year-old George Mitchell had been to civil rights demonstrations before, but he had a sense that this one was different.

"The scene there was one of a sea of people," Mitchell said. "There were good intentions with the thought of being loyal citizens, but with the need to be a part of the entire American experience."

You have to consider the context to understand why masses of people descended upon the National Mall in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, Mitchell said. The 1960s was a time of sit-ins, attempts to integrate schools and beatings.

"I went there because I wanted to do something that was bigger than me," he said.

Fifty years have passed since Martin Luther King Jr. told the country that "I have a dream," but Mitchell, president of the Illinois NAACP, said the country and the state still have a long way to go.

Champaign County NAACP President Patricia Avery said the nation has not "moved the needle very far." Her visit to Washington this week to join in on some of the events around the anniversary of King's speech, however, was uplifting, she said.

"Just for them to relive that moment was so exciting to me," Avery said. "I went there to capture that spirit of what it must have been like 50 years ago to stand there on the mall and hear Dr. King talk about this dream and this dream that we have been trying to achieve for 50 years."

Mitchell said being in the crowd was stunning, but at the time, he did not realize what a historic event it would become.

"I had no idea how impactful the speech was or how large the crowd was," Mitchell said.

The 19-year-old Mitchell didn't realize until he got back from the speech and took a call from his grandmother — she told him to turn on the television.

"She was very proud of me being there," Mitchell said. "But I didn't realize how big the crowd was until I saw the panoramic view on the TV."

Fifty years later, he said there has been some improvement, but there is still a long way to go. Race is still a huge issue in the country, he said, that needs to be addressed.

"People who are white don't have to think about being white," Mitchell said. "But if you're black or Latino or whatever, you have to think about it all the time. It becomes an encumbrance and it holds us back."

Specifically in Illinois, he said, the public school system and violence are among the top issues. Public schools have been neglected while citizens need more workforce training than ever before, and "our people have to feel safe in their own community."

Avery said voting practices are of particular concern to her, especially following the U.S. Supreme Court's striking this summer of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"Now we're being threatened with these voter suppression laws in some states and trying to roll back the clock on those," Avery said.

Avery thinks voting rights are an issue in Champaign County, too — she said she saw some "shenanigans" in recent elections.

Jobs are a key concern for both NAACP chapter presidents. Mitchell said black people not only need to be employed, but they need to be given an "opportunity to prosper."

"I think that the unemployment rate, especially for African-Americans, is through the roof," Avery said. "It's worse now than it was in '63."

While Avery thinks there is a long way to go — "I don't even think we're at the midpoint yet" — she said the 50th anniversary of the speech is still an important checkpoint with a lot of work ahead.

She said it was important to her to visit Washington this week to recreate the experience.

"I felt like I needed to be there," Avery said.

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