By Lena Mitchell
Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
TUPELO – August 1963 was an exciting time for a 20-year-old Rust College student as excitement built toward the momentous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Now 70 and a chemistry professor at Rust, Dr. William Scott recalled the social and civil rights climate of those times on the 50th anniversary of the historical march.
“There was a large contingent in Holly Springs and Marshall County active in voter registration and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,” Scott said. “We were in the process of organizing to send delegates to the Democratic National
Convention the next year, so even though a number of people went to the march, a lot of us were more focused on the local effort. Dr. King was a hero, but he was a distant hero to us.”
As various civil rights and other groups organized busloads in communities around the nation for the trip to Washington – including Northeast Mississippi communities like Holly Springs and West Point – retired Tupelo attorney James Weir, 72, was already in the nation’s capital working for the summer in the office of Congressman Arthur Winstead of Mississippi’s 4th District.
Weir was 22 and had graduated from the University of Mississippi. He was on his way to a stint in the U.S. Air Force, but was gaining useful experience as a congressional staffer through the summer.
“It was an exciting time,” Weir said. “They were talking about the march, but there was a lot going on in Washington – civil rights, the Cold War, it was right before Vietnam.”
About half a dozen Capitol Hill staffers who had been talking about the march decided to head down to the Lincoln Memorial to see what it was all about.
They arrived just in time for the keynote speech.
“We parked the car and we walked over to the Memorial, about half a block or less from it,” Weir said. “It was very peaceful, with not much security, but a lot of people, thousands. I remember King speaking. He had a great speaking voice so there was no question about who was speaking. I don’t think we stayed until it ended. We wanted to get back out before the crowd left. If I’d known the historical significance of it I would have taken a camera and stayed to the end.”
At age 11, former television news reporter and now public relations entrepreneur James Hull was too young to attend the march.
But Hull, 61, remembers how energized communities like his home town of West Point were around civil rights and justice issues. Marchers who left from West Point included people from surrounding areas.
“It was a very, very, very special event,” Hull said. “The bus left from West Point, but there were people who were in the struggle from Noxubee County, Monroe County, a few people from Starkville and Columbus who came, but the majority of folks were from West Point and Aberdeen.”
Among those activists were Hull’s own mentor, the late John Buffington, and the late General Young. They and members of the Clay County Community Development Program “brought back a bit of a glow” that propelled everyone to greater effort going forward.
“It was really an exciting time,” Hull said. “I attended the Freedom Schools at St. Paul Methodist Church, run by SNCC and SCLC, and we knew what was going on.”
Mississippi Freedom Schools were organized in the summer of 1964 primarily as a massive voter education project that would educate Mississippi students on how to engage in social activism. The Council of Federated Organizations – an umbrella civil rights group that included the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others – organized the Freedom Schools in what came to be known as Freedom Summer.
A similar coalition of organizations, which had widely differing goals, philosophies, missions and methods, came together to make the March on Washington and efforts that followed a success.
“Everyone was impressed with how Dr. King’s speech instilled greater commitment to the movement,” Scott said. “It was a focal point for the work moving forward. Dr. King had just begun to realize that he needed to get down to the lowest common denominator to make it work.”
Reflecting on those times and his early years of training as an activist, and how much social justice work remains yet today, Hull says he’s disheartened by how few people act on their concerns.
“There is a tremendous amount of societal unrest right now, but for some reason it’s not being translated into real activism,” Hull said. “There are hundreds of people who will show up at meetings and be present when an issue is talked about, but when it’s time to act they’re not there. It’s the activism – people actually doing something for or against – that’s missing.”