Robert Avery has been a councilman in his hometown of Gadsden, Ala., for almost three decades. As a teen, he and two friends hitchhiked to the nation's capital, where they made signs for the March on Washington.
Robert Avery has been a councilman in his hometown of Gadsden, Ala., for almost three decades. As a teen, he and two friends hitchhiked to the nation's capital, where they made signs for the March on Washington. Erica Yoon/NPR
For the month of August, Morning Edition and The Race Card Project are looking back at a seminal moment in civil rights history: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his iconic "I Have A Dream Speech" on Aug. 28, 1963. Approximately 250,000 people descended on the nation's capitol from all over the country for the mass demonstration.
Through The Race Card Project's six-word stories, we'll meet some of the people who witnessed that history and hear their memories and reflections on race relations in America today.
Never before had the nation seen a demonstration as large as the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. People came from all over the United States to attend the August 1963 event, traveling by more than 200 special trains and more than 2,000 special buses, as well as by plane and bicycle.
Still others traveled by thumb, like 15-year-old Robert Avery and two of his close friends from Gadsden, Ala. The teens were itching to get to Washington for the march, but they couldn't afford the trip, so decided to hitchhike.
But first, Robert Avery had to convince his mother. It wasn't that hard, he recalls. "I said, 'We're getting ready to go to Washington. We're going to be hitchhiking. I need a change of clothes, and whatever money you might have.' And she said, 'OK, just be careful.'
"I had been very active in the movement all summer," Avery says, "so I think she trusted my judgment."
Robert Avery was 15 years old when he hitchhiked from Gadsden, Ala., to Washington D.C. He was interviewed by several news organizations about his trip and is seen briefly in The March, a documentary film made by filmmaker James Blue for the United States Information Agency.
Even so, she may have prayed hard for her son's safety. In those days, the roads around Gadsden were perilous for anyone who openly supported ending segregation. Just a few months earlier, in April, William Moore, a white Baltimore mailman on a pilgrimage from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., was killed seven miles from Avery's home, on the same highway he and his friends would now travel.
Before his death, Moore had taken up a one-man stand against segregation and was making the long journey on foot to personally deliver a letter to Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett. He was shot along the side of the road in an area called Noccalula Falls. Though Ku Klux Klan involvement was suspected, the case was never solved.
Avery and his friends, Robert Frank Thomas and James Foster Smith, were plenty nervous as they approached the spot where Moore's body was found.
That's when Thomas said, "Look guys, we know where we are. Here's this man who gave his life for us. This should encourage us to go on," Avery remembers.
Then, the teens "stopped at that spot, had a prayer, and as I can remember, never thought about turning around, never got tired, never had any doubt in my mind that we weren't going to make it to Washington from that point on," Avery says.
In the wee hours of the morning the boys got their first ride from a Greyhound Bus driver. "Do you know where you are? Get on this bus!" he told them. "And he picked us up and took us to Chattanooga, Tenn.," because he knew the danger that we were getting ready to walk into," Avery says.
The bus driver didn't charge the young men for the ride — a good thing, because they had only a combined $10 among them. They slept in bus terminals and ate sparingly from vending machines. They also walked quite a bit, sometimes more than 30 miles at a stretch.
They also got rides from all kinds of people. Despite the strong segregation in the South, almost all of the motorists who picked up the three black teens were white. Avery says he never felt uneasy about the rides, with one exception.
When Robert Avery hitchhiked to Washington D.C., he and his two traveling companions arrived a week before the demonstration. They made a pay phone call to civil rights activist and D.C. delegate Walter Fauntroy, who helped get them a place to stay at a local YMCA. The three teens were soon put to work, making picket signs for the rally in the organizing office for the March on Washington for $3 a day.
Several days before the march and speeches, Avery and his friends met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — who had come looking for them at their parents' request.
"One guy picked us up, and it was a pickup truck, and we had a sign of course saying 'Washington or [Bust]' so everybody knew where we were going. And, he said, "You boys know it's dangerous out here?' ... And he said, "Y'all need to be careful.'
"And just the way he said it kind of raised the hair on the back of your neck. But, I mean, he was an OK guy ... [But] had he said that prior to [getting in] I don't think I would have got in the truck."
'Not Far, Long Way To Go'
As they got closer to D.C. and crossed over from Tennessee into Virginia, their last ride came from a black family; a husband, wife and son.
"I wish now that we would have talked more to them, because it was at night and we probably slept a lot," Avery says. "They were coming from Lynchburg. They lived in D.C. ... and they were going home. And as I look back again, I know they were God-sent."
That's because, as the group drove through the mountains, they saw black effigies hanging outside service stations. "You know, the dummies that they hang out, the Rebel flags ... hanging from light posts and whatever," Avery recalls. "That wasn't sending a signal, that was sending a strong message ... So they went to a lot of care to make them to make sure that people understood you can't stop here and buy gas."
Avery says that harrowing journey was worth every step. The three friends made it to Washington a week before the scheduled march. They found a place to stay and lucked into a job making signs for the event. The boys even personally met Martin Luther King Jr. while working in the organizing office.
Today, Avery is still an activist and a lawmaker. He's chairman of the finance committee on the Gadsden City Council. He's traveled some distance in life's journey, but when asked to share his six words about the progress made since the March on Washington, he offers, "Not far, long way to go."