Claude Burfect was a young man, not long out of high school, in 1963 New Orleans when he joined a group of preachers, a lawyer and other activists on a school bus bound for Washington, D.C.
After all these years, Burfect still remembers every jostle of that hot, two-day trip that at times took the group through back roads in states where Jim Crow reigned, where they were relegated to “Colored Only” bathrooms — when they could find even those — and where restaurant stops often meant they brought the food back to the bus and kept on moving.
They arrived in the nation’s capital to an atmosphere electric with anticipation — thousands and thousands of people of all races and ethnic backgrounds, chanting and singing. “ ‘We shall overcome’ never sounded so good,” Burfect said.
He was near the middle of a crowd estimated at around 250,000 when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech that would inspire a generation.
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“It was like God had spoken,” Burfect said.
“It’s a moment I’ll never forget … and every time I hear that speech, I still get chills.”
Burfect, who now lives in Seattle, won’t make it back to Washington, D.C., to mark the anniversary of that landmark civil-rights protest because of other commitments.
But a few delegations from the region will join hundreds of thousands from across the country expected to attend the 50th anniversary events, which will culminate in a speech Wednesday by President Obama from the same spot where King spoke.
Jacquie Jones-Walsh, a Seattle labor activist who grew up in Arkansas during the civil-rights era but never made it to the original march, will be there.
“Given everything that is going on now, I’m expecting it will be magical,” said Jones-Walsh, who moved to Seattle more than 40 years ago.
“I’m hoping that this will be like a revolution — without a revolution — shake people up.”
A crucial time
The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington comes at a crucial time for civil and human rights in this country — on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and weeks after a jury’s acquittal of the man who killed an unarmed black Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin. The verdict sparked protests across the nation and debates about how far this country has moved on race relations.
It also comes at a time when questions of race are increasingly being raised around the issue of crime — from the constitutionality and effectiveness of New York City’s “stop and frisk” program, to gun violence in cities such as Chicago,
involvement of young black men in some recent high-profile cases such as the beating death of a World War II vet in Spokane and the killing of an Australian student in Oklahoma.
The 50th anniversary is being billed as a gathering for those with unfinished business: immigrant, gay-rights and labor groups, the unemployed, the underemployed, the disenfranchised.
Many have formed powerful alliances around messages of promise and reform. Immigrant groups will make renewed calls to Congress for legislation that would bring nearly 12 million people who entered the country unlawfully onto the right side of the law.
Civil-rights groups are seeking restoration of the Voting Rights Act, while gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organizations want Congress to make it illegal to discriminate because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Jones-Walsh, a member of the Washington Federation of State Employees and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, said she’s encouraged by such collaboration and hopes efforts that coalesce at this year’s march will continue once people return home.
It needs to be the start of a conversation about where we go from here, she said.
“I hope many of these leaders won’t go back to business as usual,” Jones-Walsh said. “I hope these faith and civic leaders will return home with a plan they can work on from state to state — on issues such as education and health care.”
Inspired by King
Burfect, a teenage activist even before the march 50 years ago, said he returned home inspired by King to do more to help fellow African Americans living under repressive laws. “I felt I was destined to be part of a movement,” he said.
He remembers as a child hearing adult conversations about Jim Crow and always assumed they were talking about a man with that name — “an evil man,” he said.
Burfect joined a number of organizations pushing for change and said he worked to help people pass required civics tests so they could register to vote.
Even after he began college at Southern University in Baton Rouge that fall in 1963, he remained an activist — participating in sit-ins at lunch counters, bucking the establishment. He said he was arrested, spat upon, bitten by police dogs and sprayed by fire hoses.
The year after the march, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing Jim Crow laws, unequal application of voter-registration requirements and racial segregation in schools.
On the ground, Burfect said, it didn’t change a lot in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. He was drafted into the military after his first year in college and served for two years. By the time he got out, he said, “I just wanted to get the hell out from under Jim Crow.”
He used the GI bill to attend the University of Washington, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s in political science.
The father of three adult children, he works as a residential services coordinator at Fircrest Residential Habilitation Center in Shoreline.
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.