MILLEDGEVILLE — On Wednesday, August 28, people from across this country will gather on the nation's capital to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March On Washington by civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The march and rally, which took place August 28, 1963, attracted more than 200,000 people and featured King's groundbreaking "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
"It was during this period when King was at the peak of his influence on civil rights," said Dr. Mark Huddle, Georgia College history professor. Huddle, whose field of study is African-American history, knows all too well the importance of the march.
"It was a period of turmoil and division, not only between whites and blacks, but within the civil rights movement itself," said Huddle.
For President John F. Kennedy and his administration, the march was a public safety and a political risk that had to be closely managed and controlled, according to Huddle.
"King was always walking a tightrope because he knew he needed the support of the federal government," Huddle said. "He was always prodding and poking Kennedy to take a more affirmative stance on civil rights, but it wasn't until June when the president gave a speech that publically stated that the government would push for civil rights legislation."
During the time of the civil rights movement, the effects of segregation were most evident within the southern states of the nation. King's speech at the march was in direct contrast to George Wallace's speech in January of the same year. Wallace, governor of Alabama in 1963, called for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," in his inaugural speech.
Local resident, Johnnie Wilson, a domestic violence advocate, recalls the atmosphere of the time as a sharp contrast to today's Baldwin County.
"It was just the way things were. We knew it wasn't right, but in the 60s we had to ignore it and just live in a fantasy that this was just the way life was for African-Americans," Wilson said.
Wilson, who grew up in a segregated education system, witnessed not only discrimination between blacks and whites, but within in her race as well. Because of the negative connotations placed on African-Americans, people with dark pigmentations were often ridiculed by their own kind.
"I can remember being voted Miss Boddie Junior High in the eighth grade and my mom started crying because people were complaining that a dark-skinned girl was on the stage," she said.
In the 50 years since the march, federal legislation was enacted to guarantee equal accommodations and voting rights for people of all races.
"I can remember when I was a little girl, my father used to put all of us in his truck and head to the polling office on Hwy 212 to vote, but he got turned around every time," said Wilson. As a child, according to Wilson, she couldn't understand why her father kept trying to do something that white citizens told him he couldn't do. When she became old enough to vote herself, her initial response to the voting process was to not even bother, but she remembered how determined her father was.
"I think he brought us along with him to teach us that what was happening wasn't right and in order for things to be set right, we have to keep pushing and keep trying," she said.
Wilson can also remember meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in person as a teenager.
"I remember when I was around 15-years-old we went on a field trip to Grant Park in Atlanta to hear him speak and thought his ideas on equality made perfect sense, but I couldn't understand why we weren't seen as equal to whites," she said.
Has there been much progression in Baldwin County since the civil rights movement? Through Wilson's eyes yes there has, but not enough.
"When me and my husband moved back to Milledgeville in 1993 we both were amazed at the few numbers of black people in the community that weren't part of the town's businesses," she said. "In a county where half the population is black, I should be able to walk into any business and find at least one black person in a managerial position."
In order for things to continue to change, Wilson suggests that it starts with the youth of our community.
"Many of our young educated African-American people move on and make a difference elsewhere. If they would choose to stay in Baldwin County they can make a big difference right here in their own community and set an example for others to follow."
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