RENE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We are spending the month of August looking back at the March on Washington, that milestone in the civil rights movement 50 years ago. It's part of NPR's partnership with the Race Card Project. NPR's Michele Norris is revisiting the march with people who were there on that hot summer day. She's also taking their temperature about race relations in America today.
This morning their six-word thoughts on race are revealed at the end of the tale you're about to hear.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Never before had the nation seen a demonstration that large. People came from all over the country. There were more than 200 special trains and more than 2,000 special buses. Marchers also traveled by plane, by bicycle, and in some cases by thumb. In Gadsden, Alabama, 15-year-old Robert Avery and two of his close friends were itching to get to Washington for the big march, but they couldn't afford the trip, so they decided to hitchhike.
First, Robert Avery had to convince his mother.
ROBERT AVERY: Walked in, my mom was there, sitting there. And I said, mom, you know, 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, okay, just be careful.
NORRIS: Can I stop you for a minute?
AVERY: Sure, go ahead.
NORRIS: Your mother is a special woman, because if you walked in and said I need all the money that you have and a change of clothes...
AVERY: All the money that you can - yeah, that she'll let me have.
NORRIS: And then she said okay?
AVERY: She said okay. I had been very active in the movement all summer so I think she trusted my judgment.
NORRIS: Even so, she probably prayed hard for her son's safety. In those days, the roads around Gadsden, Alabama were perilous for anyone who openly supported integration.
AVERY: What you got to realize, this was in August of '63. In April of '63, a white Baltimore mailman who was on a pilgrimage from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi was killed some seven miles from my home, on the highway that we had to go up.
NORRIS: Robert Avery there was referring to the death of William Moore along Highway 11. 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 Governor 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 was travelling with two friends, Robert Frank Thomas and James Foster Smith. They had to follow the same path along Highway 11 where Moore was killed and they were plenty nervous as they approached the spot where the postman's body was found.
AVERY: And by this time we were at the spot and Frank said, look, guys, we know where we are. You know, here's this man who gave his life for us. This should encourage us to go on. And of course we 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.
NORRIS: Do you remember the prayer?
AVERY: Yeah. Pretty much a simple prayer. We prayed for him. We prayed for his family, as I remember. And then, of course, we asked God to just look over us and protect us as we go on our journey.
NORRIS: In the wee hours of the morning they got their first ride from a Greyhound bus driver.
AVERY: Said, do you know where you are? We said, yeah. He said, get on this bus. And he picked us up and took us to Chattanooga, Tennessee, because he knew the danger that we were getting ready to walk into.
NORRIS: The bus driver didn't charge the young men for the ride, and that's a good thing, because they had only a combined $10 between them. They slept in bus terminals and ate sparingly from vending machines. How did you get enough to eat? Fifteen-year-olds eat a lot.
AVERY: Well, we starved a lot too.
NORRIS: They also walked quite a bit, sometimes more than 30 miles at a stretch. And they also got rides from all kinds of people. Despite the strong segregation in the South, almost all of the motorists who pulled over to pick up those three black teens were white.
AVERY: I never had any uneasiness about the rides, except one.
NORRIS: What happened?
AVERY: 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 we said, yeah. And he said, y'all need to be careful. And you know, just the way he said it kind of raised the hairs on the back of your neck. But I mean, he was an okay guy.
NORRIS: You got in the car despite that.
AVERY: Well, we were in the car when he said that.
NORRIS: Oh, okay.
AVERY: Had he said that prior to, I don't think I would have gotten in the truck.
NORRIS: As they got closer to D.C. and crossed over from Tennessee into Virginia, their last ride came from a black family.
AVERY: A husband, a wife, and they had a son. And I wish now that we would have talked more to them because it was at night and we probably slept a lot. But I didn't get their names. They were coming from Lynchburg. They lived in D.C., I remember that much, and they were going home. And as I look back again, I know they were God-sent, because as we went through mountains, they had all the black effigies hanging out at the service stations and stuff like that.
NORRIS: What do you mean?
AVERY: You know, the dummies that they hang out, the Rebel flags as we went through the mountains there in Virginia, coming into D.C.
NORRIS: I understand. But by dummies, they were hanging?
AVERY: Yeah, hanging from light posts and whatever.
NORRIS: Black characters, in effigy?
AVERY: Black characters.
NORRIS: Meant to send a signal.
AVERY: No. That wasn't sending a signal, that was sending a strong message, you know. And they were people figures, like a person hanging. They went to a lot of care to make them to make sure that people understood you can't stop here and buy gas.
NORRIS: Avery says that harrowing journey was worth every step. He and his two friends made it to Washington, D.C. a week before the scheduled march. They found a place to stay, lucked into a job making signs for the march, and wound up being in the right place at the right time. They even personally met Martin Luther King, Jr. while working in the organizing office.
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 here are the six words he offers when asked about the progress made since the March on Washington.
AVERY: My six words are: Not far, long way to go.
MONTAGNE: That's Robert Avery speaking with NPR's Michele Norris, curator of the Race Card Project. At NPR.org you can hear more about Robert Avery's journey to the March on Washington, his encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr., and you can learn about William Moore, the white postal worker who was killed during his one-man protest against segregation.