Inez Cassimere was 20 in August 1963 when she stepped on board the bus from New Orleans to Washington. Then Inez Hale, she was secretary of the New Orleans NAACP Youth Council, one of three members selected to attend the historic event, which took place 60 years ago Monday (Aug. 28).
“Being there has never left my memory,” she said from her home in New Orleans last week accompanied by her husband, Raphael Cassimere, Jr., who was president of the NAACP Youth Council in 1963. The two were dating at the time, but he was unable to attend the march because he was overseeing an ongoing boycott of Canal Street stores that were refusing to hire Black employees.
The bus left from the Peter Claver Building on Orleans Avenue. The building housed the local NAACP offices. Then-NAACP New Orleans branch President Ernest “Dutch” Morial — who would later become the city’s first Black mayor — and legendary civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud, who served as the group’s legal counsel, both worked there at the time.
Inez Cassimere remembered the group singing freedom songs during the long ride to the nation’s capital.
“It felt good and exciting to know that I was going to the March on Washington,” Inez Cassimere said.
As part of the New Orleans NAACP Youth Council, Inez Cassimere had been active in civil rights demonstrations and boycotts. Now she would be joined by activists doing similar work from around the country.
“It was like being in New Orleans but on your way to doing a better job, a different job to get more things to happen and to change.”
When she arrived in Washington, Inez Cassimere, now 80, said she was in “awe” of how many people were there for the march — people of different races from different cities and states. She sat at the reflection pool, where she could hear the speakers clearly.
“I can’t even remember a lot of issues, but I can remember how I felt,” she said. “There was electricity in the air. It was like being in church. I was ecstatic.”
Inez Cassimere was one of more than 250,000 who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. At the time, the march, organized by the Big Six civil rights organizations — NAACP, National Urban League, Congress of Racial Equality, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — was the nation’s largest demonstration for freedom.
It was there that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech.
“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” King said in the legendary speech. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Carol Lazard LaMotte, another member of the New Orleans NAACP Youth Council who attended the march, shared that dream and was optimistic for the future. But now, she said, she thinks she was “naive to think that things would change” after King’s historic speech.
“We saw some things had changed and some things are basically the same,” she said last week from her home in Baton Rouge. “We can go places. You can go to a restaurant. You can go to this place and that place, but the overall feeling, the mentality of a lot of people, is still the same or worse.”
Nearly three weeks after King’s speech, four little girls died after a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 16, 1963.
There have been assaults on Black lives in recent years as well.
In 2015, a young white man, Dylann Roof, entered Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine Black people during the church’s bible study.
Last year, Payton Gendron, 18, killed 10 Black people during a racially-motivated mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. Media outlets found that in social media posts, Gendron had targeted the Tops supermarket because it was in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
And two days ago, on Aug. 26, while thousands had gathered on the National Mall for the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, a white gunman in Jacksonville, Florida killed three Black people at a Dollar General store before killing himself. News reports noted that one of the gunman’s weapons was painted with swastikas.
Then there are the attacks on what some politicians call “critical race theory” — though critics say they’re really just describing a full understanding of American history — including threats to ban teaching of advancement placement African American history courses at schools in Arkansas and new Black History standards in Florida.
LaMotte pointed to Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’ defense of the state’s new Black history standards that teach students that Black people benefited from slavery because they learned skills.
“The former president and this man in Florida, the governor of Florida, they’re trying to take everything we’ve gained away from us,” LaMotte, 80, said. “What do we do? Where do we go? We went through a lot of things during the Civil Rights Movement and then we’re moving backwards and it’s frustrating.”
Raphael Cassimere Jr., now 81, remembered being on the picket line for two years during the New Orleans NAACP Youth Council’s boycott of the stores on Canal Street. He said six decades after the March on Washington, we have to keep pushing.
“We are farther along than where we were. No, we are not as far as we need to go, but we made progress,” he said. “We have to keep pushing. We didn’t do it because the government decided to give us rights. We did it because we forced change to come. Things are not going to change on their own. Somebody has to have the faith as Dr. King had.”
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