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Young Hearts Filled With Courage: Passing on the Legacy of March on Washington

August 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
For civil rights leader Cleveland Sellers, the significance and power of the March on Washington transcends generations. Sellers, who was on the National Mall that historic day, and son Bakari Sellers, a S.C. state representative, join Gwen Ifill to reflect on what the march has meant to their family and to all Americans.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to our commemoration of the March on Washington.

First, a few words from Charmaine McKissick-Melton of Durham, North Carolina. Her father, the late Floyd McKissick, then national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, spoke at the original event.

CHARMAINE MCKISSICK-MELTON, daughter of civil rights leader: My father, as one of the leaders, was told they didn’t want children at the march in case something might happen.

When we turned on the TV, we were really, really disappointed that we weren’t there, because we saw lots of kids there. My father wasn’t supposed to be a speaker at the march. It was supposed to be a CORE person. And, of course, that was the director, who was James Farmer. We call him Jim Farmer.

So — but Jim was arrested, and he was in Louisiana, so therefore my father was called on, as the second in command of CORE, to be a speaker at the march.

I remember that he was probably more staged than normal, I felt. He tended to be a little fierier, not quite a gospel — excuse me — not quite a Baptist minister, but I think he pretty much kind of stuck to script it seemed to me more than normal.

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“To Charmaine, my lovely daughter, the future is yours. Your generation will have to continue the struggle for change. It is my faith in you and other youth that I rely on. Your daddy, Floyd McKissick.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was Charmaine McKissick-Melton from Durham, North Carolina. You can find her story and other firsthand accounts for the Web series Memories of the March produced by public television stations around the country on the PBS Web site Black Culture Connection.

GWEN IFILL: Now to our own coverage of the anniversary. Thousands gathered Saturday to mark the occasion on the National Mall, the site of the original march. Elected officials, activists and civil rights leaders addressed the crowd, calling for a more expansive interpretation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. 

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: As we gather today, 50 years later, their march is now our march, and it must go on.

And our focus has broadened to include the cause of women, of Latinos, of Asian-Americans, of lesbians, of gays, of people with disabilities, and of countless others across this great country who still yearn for equality, opportunity and fair treatment.

AL SHARPTON, civil rights activist: I keep hearing people talking about Dr. King’s dream. When I was younger, I said to my mother, my friends say, why are we dreaming? You need to be awake to fight.

Well, my mother said to me, you got to understand what dreams are for. Dreams are for those that won’t accept reality as it is. So they dream of what is not there and make it possible.

GWEN IFILL: Also speaking Saturday, the slain civil rights leader’s son, Martin Luther King III.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III, son of Martin Luther King Jr.: I, like you, continue to feel his presence. I, like you, continue to hear his voice crying out in the wilderness. The admonition is clear. This is not the time for a nostalgic commemoration, nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete.

GWEN IFILL: The passage of 50 years has altered the way we consider the march, especially for those who marched and those not yet born.

I spoke recently with civil rights leader Cleveland Sellers, who was there in 1963 and was active in the movement, and his son, South Carolina State Representative Bakari Sellers, who is now running for lieutenant governor in their home state.

Cleveland Sellers, Bakari Sellers, thank you both for joining us.

Since age brings wisdom, I’m going to start first with Cleveland Sellers, who went through so much in your career as a civil rights activist. You were arrested after the Orangeburg massacre. You were part of Freedom Summer. And you marched on Washington in 1963 — so many turning points that happened during that time.  

What about the march was different for you?

CLEVELAND SELLERS, civil rights activist: Well, the march occurred in 1963. And at that point, I was an 18-year-old sophomore at Howard University.

And I had been keeping up with all of the activities of young people across the South, primarily in their efforts to sit in and Freedom Rides. And then you had the students in Birmingham who faced the water hoses and the dogs.

And later that summer ’63, you had the murder of Medgar Evers. And so we began to feel, young people, like we were beginning to make our point known, and that is that we were experiencing a unique time in our lives where we wanted to say that we wanted our freedom and we wanted it now.

And so we had an opportunity to be involved in the March on Washington. And I had an opportunity to be a volunteer there in Washington, D.C. And the night before the march, I spent a lot of time making posters and making sandwiches, cheese sandwiches.

(LAUGHTER)

CLEVELAND SELLERS: I think some 70,000 posters and I can’t remember how many cheese sandwiches we actually made.

But I was there the very next morning, and it was a thrill seeing all of these buses and cars and masses of people coming to Washington with different objectives in mind.

GWEN IFILL: Bakari Sellers, you were barely a gleam in your parents’ eye. Your mother’s name is Gwen. I kind of like that.

So, tell me, what — how did you first learn about that day? How did you first learn about the march?

REP. BAKARI SELLERS, D-S.C.: Well, my upbringing was a little bit different than most, in that I didn’t necessarily have to go and open up a library book. I didn’t have to wait for my third or fourth grade teachers to educate me on Briggs v. Elliott or Brown vs. the Board of Education or Sarah Mae Flemming or the March on Washington.

For me, growing up the son of Dr. Cleveland Sellers and Gwendolyn Sellers, I understood that they really felt those prison floors. They understood what the smell of gun smoke smelt like. It wasn’t anything that they actually had to dream up or read about in the history book, but for them it was real life.

Growing up and hearing stories about the March on Washington, I think the most unique thing that stood out and still stands out to me this day about that journey was that it was sparked by young people. It was young people that were 14, 15, 16 years old, 21, 22, 23 years old.

And, you know, I got this little basic understanding that, if not me, then who, and if not now, then when? And without those young people, without those young visions, those young hearts, those young people who were filled with courage, and some oftentimes radical sense of invincibility, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have today.

So for me, the March on Washington was a moment in time, a moment in history that we look back on and we learn from.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask your dad this question.

Because I wonder if this is something that set out to do as a parent. You decided that it was important that your children take this in not just from the history books, but in reality.

CLEVELAND SELLERS: Yes, but I thought that it was important for us to transfer many of those experiences and that knowledge to young people in general.

And I just had the opportunity to carry my children around with me as I was engaged in other kinds of civil rights-oriented activities. I had an opportunity to meet many of the legends of the civil rights era. You know, the Andy Youngs and the Stokely Carmichaels and the Diane Nashes and the John Lewis.

And the list goes on and on and on. But I thought that that was so important for young people, and I should start with my own in terms of making sure that they understood that history and understood that struggle.

GWEN IFILL: Bakari, why did you decide, after watching your father’s and your mother’s example, why did you decide elective politics? Why was that the path?

BAKARI SELLERS: My father and mother both, they always taught us, one, that education was the gateway to the American dream. And I always had this insatiable desire to learn as much as possible.

But I will always remember growing up my dad used to just drill in our head to make sure you’re a change agent. No matter what field you going into, whether or not you’re in medicine like my sister, or the ministry like my brother, or where I am now, make sure you’re a change agent.

And for me, I had an opportunity to work for United States Congressman Jim Clyburn. And I had an opportunity to work for Mayor Shirley Franklin. But I understood that it’s not about politics. It’s about public service. And I had the audacity to run for office when I was 20 years old, announced I was going to run when I was 20, 21 years old, and win.

And now we’re running for lieutenant governor all because my father and others like him have given so much to the state of South Carolina. And I really feel it’s my responsibility to give as much as I have to make sure that people have access. And they fought for access during the March on Washington. And although our goals have changed, I still believe my mission to be true.

GWEN IFILL: Cleveland Sellers, when you look back now 50 years later, do you think that the goals of the march were accomplished?

CLEVELAND SELLERS: Well, I think we have to start with what happened 2.5 weeks after the march, and that was the bombing of the Birmingham — 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where reality set in.

And that was, was that your freedom wasn’t going to be just given to you, and that that struggle was going to be a lifelong struggle for many of us who were very young at that particular period of time. And as we have gone through, we have seen that there were achievements beyond the March on Washington.

I think the march actually mobilized people and gave you an opportunity to talk about specific issues. But you have to do the grunt work. And that is the organizing. So, you began to see young people go across the South and beginning to organize. You saw Selma and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. You saw the Mississippi Summer Project and the 1964 civil rights bill.

You saw affirmative action. You saw all of these things grow out of that. You saw an effort to empower marginalized people across the country who used the model that we were using in terms of organizing for a kind of self-determination and pulling people together so they could take control of their own lives.

Those models were actually those things that grew out of the movement. I think that the March on Washington is one of those epic points, but there are a number of other epic points that actually pulled this whole process together. And I think it’s important that we understand the struggle that even went on in the March on Washington to get the message out.

GWEN IFILL: Let me flash-forward, and staying with you, Cleveland Sellers, to the present.

CLEVELAND SELLERS: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: We are still having big national conversations, as they say, about race. We’re still — we’re just coming out of the Trayvon Martin episode.

And I wonder, as you look back, you wonder whether it’s leadership that’s missing, whether we’re just not honest as a people in discussing these issues, or whether we have come much farther than we give ourselves credit for?

CLEVELAND SELLERS: I think we have come a long ways.

But what you have to recognize is that you have to have committed people who are constantly being vigilant and making sure that things that happen are not happening to undue the progress that has been made. I look back at the rollback of affirmative action. I look at the attack on the Voting Rights Act just recently.

I look at the unemployment and those kinds of issues. It’s ironic that, in 2013, looking back 50 years, that the message march on Washington for jobs and freedom are applicable even today.

GWEN IFILL: Bakari Sellers, the same question to you. What is your sense of how far we have or have not come in the 50 years since?

BAKARI SELLERS: For me, we brought up the Trayvon Martin case.

And one thing that I have learned to do is kind of look at things from a 50,000-foot view. And for me, it’s much larger than that. We have a generation of African-American young men who are growing up hopeless and full of despair.

And we have figure out why that is. You know, on a larger scale, my father recently talked about the Voting Rights Act and voter I.D. and some of the attacks that have been made against the Voting Rights Act. And you can’t help but to believe we are on the brink of chaos in this country.

But the challenge for me and my generation is still to build community, and I think we have made progress. But I think when you look at where we are today, you understand we still have yet a ways to go.

And my challenge — and I task a lot of people in my generation — is to understand the nuances of what we’re dealing with. For me, it’s no longer black and white. The issue of my father’s generation are still very much prevalent today, but it’s not as much black and white, as it is the haves vs. have-nots, and ensuring that everybody, no matter their race, creed or color or socioeconomic level or where they grow up, in the state of South Carolina or the United States of America, has access and the ability to attain the American dream.

GWEN IFILL: From South Carolina, each breaking through in his own way and in his own generation, Bakari Sellers, Cleveland Sellers, thank you so much for joining us.

BAKARI SELLERS: Thank you.

CLEVELAND SELLERS: Thank you for having us.

GWEN IFILL: We continue our series tomorrow with Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. He’s the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the only speaker at the 1963 march who is still alive.