This week has seen lots of media coverage on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. One thing that always bothered me about the historical reporting of that event is that the full and correct name of the event is rarely used. It was actually called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. Truncating the name has led to not accurately and completely portraying what that event was all about. That in itself is a great topic for discussion, but not for today. Today, I simply want to say thanks to a relative who was there and share his story a bit for some who may not have seen or heard it already. It’s a source of pride to know that a family member is being recognized alongside names like John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King, and others who had major and minor roles in pulling off that event.
Robert Avery’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement predated the historic March on Washington. He traveled as a youth speaker to raise funds for the Movement and also participated in protests in Gadsden before the age of 15. To this date, he still has scars from cattle prods that were used on him during the protests. While significant in their own right, his actions in those other areas pale in comparison with his odyssey to participate in the March on Washington.
On a dark night in August 1968, three young men started on a 700 mile journey with history. Frank Thomas (age 17), James Smith (age 16), and Robert Avery (age 15) set off on foot from Gadsden, Alabama with the goal of reaching Washington D.C. to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They walked and hitchhiked along U.S. Highway 11 passing a spot where a postman, William Moore, was shot and killed while conducting a one man protest march to deliver a letter to the Governor of Mississippi Ross Barnett. Along the way, they were picked up by drivers, White and Black, who aided them along in their trip even with them carrying a sign that made it obvious they were going to Washington D.C.
When they reached Washington D.C., they made contact with people in the Civil Rights Movement who helped them find a place to stay and put them to work. They were some of the first people to arrive in D.C., and they began to assemble the numerous pre-printed signs that marchers carried during that historical event. While they were there working, they even had the opportunity to converse with Dr. King who had traveled through Gadsden prior to his arrival in D.C. Even after that event, Robert kept up his involvement with the movement even traveling to Birmingham, a.k.a. “Bombingham”, after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Looking back on that even, it’s hard to imagine myself in his shoes. While I like to think that I have the courage to speak up when I feel things are wrong, I don’t know if I would have been able to take on such a challenge right after I celebrated my 15th birthday. Seeing his photo and story recounted alongside other stories of Civil Rights leaders is an honor unlike any I’ve felt before in my life. There are other relatives who have done things and are widely recognized around the world. However, their impact on the world has yet to resonate to the extent that Robert’s has. I’ve already began telling my daughters about this and other family stories. I want to ensure they know where they come from in order to know where they’re going.
CNN is airing an original documentary, “We Were There: The March On Washington – An Oral History” which premiered on Friday night. It will rebroadcast tonight, Sunday August 25th, at 8pm EST.
- Determined To Reach 1963 March, Teen Used Thumb And Feet (npr.org)
- 5 faces of the March on Washington (cnn.com)