Marion Woods

Q&A: 50 years later, King's words echo

Published: Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 - 10:27 am

On Aug. 28, tens of thousands of Americans are expected to gather at the Lincoln Memorial for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when more than 200,000 marched for jobs, freedom and civil rights for all.

Sacramento civil rights leader Marion J. Woods – a descendant of slaves who became director of the California Department of Social Services in 1975 – was a classmate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Woods, 82, said he felt goose bumps when he heard King thunder:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. … When we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet. … We will be able to speed up the day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty, we are free at last!

Woods, 82, reflected on how far the nation has come since the 1963 march that inspired the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act – and how much further he believes the nation needs to go. Woods said a new march is necessary to address the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Now some states with a history of voting discrimination are enacting voting requirements that had previously been denied by the Justice Department.

How did it feel to be there in Washington in 1963?

Martin's was the very last speech, and it was kind of quiet when he went on. Mahalia Jackson kept saying, "Tell them about the dream, Martin, tell them about the dream!"

And his crescendo left heartbeats pounding, people shouting, screaming, hollering and hugging like we all scored the winning touchdown. The crowd was about 70 percent black, but the thing that got me was the large number of elderly white people – the AFL-CIO had a lot to do with financing the march, and a lot of the union was white. We all sang 'We Shall Overcome' all night.

What inspired you to go?

My great-grandfather, Willie Woods, was a slave in South Carolina descended from the Maroons, a tribe of runaway slaves. Early on I learned my grandfather had cut down the only Jew ever lynched in America, Leo Frank, from the tree on Roswell Street two miles from my home in Marietta, Ga., in 1915 for the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl, Mary Phagan, who worked for him at a pencil factory. (The Frank case sparked the birth of the Anti-Defamation League.)

When I lived in Marietta in the square where they used to sell the slaves there was an ice cream parlor, and if we wanted a cone we'd have to flip the clerk a nickel and he'd pitch us the cone and we'd have to catch it before it hit the ground because we couldn't be within touching distance of a white person. My father had to take me an hour on a streetcar to swim at Washington Park in Atlanta because there were no places for black kids to swim in Marietta except a very dangerous swimming hole where my friend Herbert McCaffee drowned when we were 8.

When did you first meet the Rev. King?

I met Martin at the Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta when we were 11 or 12. I was present when he made the speech to be ordained as a minister as a junior at Morehouse. He was our hero then, and would often say, "It's not how long you live but how well you live."

The height of the civil rights movement was in 1963, and the March on Washington was an opportunity to get involved. We called for the desegregation of all school districts. Black unemployment was double that of white; public stores and accommodations were still segregated.

There was only one black motel on Route 66 and Highway 80 between Los Angeles and Atlanta – in Dallas – so I saved my money and six of us flew Delta to Washington.

Describe your activism.

I worked for the state for 25 years and once led a march to City Hall protesting the lack of black social workers. I was a local director for the War and Poverty and in 1964 created community centers in Oak Park, Glen Elder, Del Paso Heights, Southside Park, along with the Washington Neighborhood Center and Gardenland in Rio Linda.

How did the 1963 march change America?

After the 1964 Civil Rights Act, my mother could shop in white supermarkets without violating the law.

Before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, my father had to guess how many bubbles there were in a bar of soap before he could register to vote, and my wife had to guess how many hairs on a horse.

There were four blacks in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now there are 44.

Before the Voting Rights Act was gutted in June, the Justice Department had authority over voting rights changes. We thought we won 50 years ago, but that victory was ephemeral.

Why should people march again?

In spite of all the legislative and judicial battles won, the majority of black Americans today are still confined to criminally poor housing, the worst schools in the nation, the bottom of the unemployment ladder, and faced with hostile state actions aimed at taking away their right to vote.

I wrote a letter on Facebook to my daughters: "John Hope Franklin (the late historian) taught us well when he said the fight for civil rights has to be won over and over again by each generation.

"Benjamin Mays (former president of Morehouse) taught us that freedom ain't free. Those of us who are sons of the Jim Crow South know that the South has not been rehabilitated. Racism is not fashionable, it is institutional. … Be careful, my darlings, and please know that you and your grandchildren are going to have to prepare yourselves and your white, Hispanic and Asian friends to continue this fight."

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.

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