Yvonne Leonard was only 15 years old when she decided she would be attending the March on Washington on an August day in 1963.
Along with her 14-year-old sister, she would be one of many to aboard an NAACP bus headed straight to the nation’s capitol.
“In those days, we had some issues with these people of color,” Leonard told the AFRO. “People couldn’t vote, people weren’t getting equal pay- and you have to remember what the March on Washington was: a march for jobs.”
Leonard recalls leaving from Penn Station after getting permission from her mother.
“We sang songs and it was very spiritual, but that’s the kind of people we were in those days,” said the Brooklyn native, remembering the journey down.
This year she retraced her own steps back to the Lincoln Memorial.
Leonard said the election of an African-American president and rights gained for women show that there has been change – but said “clearly some things don’t make sense even 50 years later-” such as the new voter laws that have swept the country.
Gathering 250,000 people, according to the National Archives, the March on Washington for jobs and freedom was put together in only two months with details planned by Bayard Rustin and 200 volunteers.
Like Leonard, a 14-year-old Elayne Foster also saw the trip as a short distance to go when it came to equal rights and the stamping out terrorism that had only tightened it’s grip on Black Americans during the American Reconstruction and the decades that followed the civil war.
“I used the same method I used in 1963 to get here- a church had a bus,” said Foster, now 63.
Fifty years ago it was St. John Baptist Church on Sycamore Street in Buffalo, NY.
This year, Foster traveled with True Bethel Baptist Church, also in Buffalo.
“My mother was always interested in NAACP and she was a livid on teaching African American history to her children. Naturally, we always admired King’s platform.”
Foster said that today’s generation has experienced a disconnect when it comes to Black culture, and have little pride when it comes to their history- evidenced by the many youths and young adults who don’t stand and sometimes opt to text instead of singing the Black National Anthem, James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing.
“It has changed because the population has changed. Our parents were older and instilled values about voting and how we suffered, so those songs we sang coming down on the bus actually meant something to us.”
“I think we still have a long way to go as African Americans,” she said.
Like Foster, Leonard also saw a lack of passion and energy among attendees, and said it seemed like participants were just walking from place to place with no type of spirit.
Foster hoped the several days of commemorative events this week will give way to greater opportunities for Americans such as better benefits for union workers and re-awaken a new sense of activism.
Issues from jobs to debt free education and union rights were all raised on signs, chanted about in the streets, and written about in pamphlets and on t-shirts.
Many participants wanted to send a message to their own people about positive collective power and an end to Black on Black violence.
But even in the crowd that, according to Metro Police, easily spilled into the thousands by 9 a.m.—there were still some who were not happy with how far we’ve come or where we are now.
50 years later, participants complained of some of the same issues that faced African Americans in 1963, such as racial profiling and disproportionate arrest rates.
“Everything that was gained in the first march- such as voting rights- is slowly being taken away,” said C.V. Ledgar, 74, an NAACP member and business owner from Dayton, Ohio. “The progress is gone- and it is getting harder for younger generations.”