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Bus trip to DC links church’s civil rights past to activist future

For members of New York City's Riverside Church, the anniversary of the march on Washington was about finding a way to connect the memories of the past to the work of a new generation.
/ Source: Melissa Harris Perry

For members of New York City's Riverside Church, the anniversary of the march on Washington was about finding a way to connect the memories of the past to the work of a new generation.

People arrive at the National Mall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech on the National Mall on August 24, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

For the 110 members of New York City’s Riverside Church who traveled to the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington, the day began with coffee and croissants at 3:30 am. The hour didn’t stop congregants from singing songs from the civil rights marches of the 1960s or telling stories, and as two lines formed to board two buses, Colia Liddell Lafayette Clark, 73, led everyone in chants and spirituals.

At the march, they joined thousands of other activists in  commemorating a pivotal protest in the civil rights movement that culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech.

Clark is intimately familiar with what those songs and the speech meant to the civil rights movement—she started working to end segregation as a college student in Mississippi in 1959. By 1961, she was working for Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP who was killed by a white supremacist in 1963. Clark missed the original March on Washington because she was traveling back from speaking to human rights groups in New York.

While the United States may not look like the same country as when she protested in Birmingham and got beaten by police, Clark said that growing income inequality and unemployment are still critical issues.

“The form may change, the appearance may change, but the substance, appears to have worsened,” she said.

Even so, Clark still believes that change can come, movements like Occupy Wall Street and groups like the Dream Defenders “remind me of when I was young,” she said.

Saturday’s trip was organized by Carlene Pinto, 25, who has spent the past two years as the coordinator of mission and social justice for the church, itself a stronghold of activism in New York City. Joining her were a number of former summer interns who came to Riverside through the New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program. Pinto treated the six weeks she had with the 14 teenagers as a social justice training camp, teaching them about the history of the civil rights movement and black history, as well as getting them involved in marches for Trayvon Martin and slain NYC teen Ramarley Graham.

“Segregation is not far from where we are standing,” Pinto said. When her interns started at the beginning of the summer, “none of them knew who Emmett Till was.” Today, half a dozen of them came back to volunteer and help the trip run smoothly.

Handing out t-shirts to congregants before the bus left Saturday, 18-year-old Tajzhane Green said she wanted to make it clear that social justice work and activism is not a thing of the past.

“It’s important to show that it’s not just elderly people, that it’s young people too,” Green said.

As the congregation traveled through Maryland, Clark picked up the microphone at the front of the bus to give a history lesson on the state’s connection to slavery, slave rebellions, and the 1947 push to desegregate buses between New York City and Washington DC.  Activists, she said, paid a very high price when they attempted the same thing south of the Mason Dixon line in the 1961 Freedom Rides.

Clarence and Emily Anderson, who serve on the church council and brought their two daughters, spoke of the very different paths they had taken in their lives—“a duet of North and South,” as he called it. Clarence, a New York City native, drove to the 1963 march with friends for what he said was “one of the greatest days of my life.” His wife Emily grew up in segregated Charleston, South Carolina, and was arrested twice while trying to integrate the city of Orangeburg, once spending nine days in jail at a state penitentiary in Columbia because the local jails were too full.

For Margarita Cuevas-Cruz, 23, coming to the march was as much about identity as about activism. “As a Latina woman who identifies as a black woman, who gets asked ‘who are you?’ this is about finding who I am.”

Nellie Bailey, who ran a tenant’s rights non-profit and fought gentrification in Harlem for more than 20 years, got off the bus hopeful that the events would lead to action and coalition-building. “We need more than commemoration. Without demands on the state, this will be just a joyful but empty hallelujah.”

Once at the National Mall, Ana Riazabal and her boyfriend, Ryan Davis, were brief celebrities, with dozens of people asking to take pictures of them with their sign. It read, “Less Prisons, More Schools,” and both said that they want to work to improve the lives of black and Latino young people.

Riazabal, a graduate student in social work, told MSNBC that “if it weren’t for some of my college professors, and my parents, I’d be clueless. I’d think we lived in a post-racial society.” Commemorating Dr. King and his legacy may be important, she said, but there is more to be done. “Civil rights is more than just black and white now.”