It was 13 years after President Harry Truman integrated the military.
It was nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate, segregated schools were unequal.
It was eight years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white passenger.
But Jim Crow conditions, the systematic practice of discriminating against and segregating Blacks, still dominated the land, especially in the South. So on, Aug. 28, 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, a pastor from Montgomery, Ala. made his way to a podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what may be the most significant speech in modern times, the “I have a dream” speech.
While the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was just one moment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life that is celebrated to this day, each year the country gives thanks to King’s legacy.
IN RESTON, 43 years after the March on Washington, about 65 people participated in an annual commemorative march Sunday from the Lake Anne Village Center to the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation as part of a three-day celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Led by young people, the march acted as a symbol of the fight for freedom and equal rights that King led.
“Without the march, I feel a significant part of the celebration would be missing,” said Rodney Scott, who along with his wife Janice Scott, helped organize Reston’s MLK celebration. “This day helps teach our youngsters to carry on the legacy of Dr. King.”
While MLK Day is about remembering King’s legacy, it is also about being active against today’s injustices, said Betty Collins, chairman of Reston’s MLK celebration. “He is asking all of us to take a part, play a part in the community,” said Collins before the commemorative march.
Echoing Collins’ message, Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) urged people to stay involved. “As we march today we’ll get our exercise, but we’ll also get our exercise when we put our minds to the things Dr. King stood for,” said Hudgins.
THE HIGHLIGHT OF the celebration was Monday’s keynote speaker, Ezra Hill, a former U.S. Air Force Tuskegee Airman, who remembered King and told of his own battles against injustice.
During World War II, the Air Force started a program in Tuskegee, Ala. to train black Americans as military pilots. By the end of the war, 992 men had graduated from pilot training at Tuskegee, 450 of whom were sent overseas for combat assignment. During the same period, approximately 150 lost their lives while in training or on combat flights.
But while the Airmen as a unit earned 150 Flying Crosses, 744 air medals, 14 Bronze Stars and eight Purple Hearts, Hill recalled the struggle to become the first black military pilots.
Hill said the experts at the time said blacks did not have the dexterity, the mental competence, the skills or the courage to serve as pilots. “They said we could not fly these sophisticated airplanes, but we were given the chance,” said Hill. “You see young people, don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do — and that’s what Martin Luther King Jr. did.”
WHEN THE AIRMEN were finally sent abroad to Europe during the war, they went on 200 missions escorting U.S. bombers over enemy lines. When the Airmen arrived in Italy, they found two bases, one for whites and the other for the black airmen. “But when we got into the air, we were integrated,” said Hill, who noted that all the bombers were flown by whites.
“After 50 missions, no bombers were lost. After 100 missions, no losses. After 150 missions, no losses,” said Hill.
At a time when it was customary to lose up to 60 percent of the bombers after a mission, the Tuskegee Airmen did not lose a single one, said Hill.
“The Red Tail Angels escorted them in and we escorted them out,” said Hill. A native of Washington D.C. who now lives in Hampton, Va., Hill urged the crowd of about 150 people to carry on King’s legacy. “Dr. King, we owe him, but we can all do the same. You can overcome, too.”
Prior to his speech, in an emotional moment, Hill also sang “The Wind Beneath My Wings” in honor of Beverly Sharp, one of Reston's first African-American residents and a longtime community activist who died last week after a second bout with cancer.
The celebration, which had the theme of “Are We Keeping the Promise?", also included musical entertainment by the MLK Christian Church gospel choir after the march on Sunday, a performance by the Reston Chamber Orchestra at the Reston Community Center at Hunters Woods. On Monday, the program featured a full-day of activities, including youth workshops, the announcement of community service awards, cultural presentations and music and dance performances. A food and winter clothing drive was also held at the event.