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Marching to freedom from Florida

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): An early warrior for civil rights    Eyes of the nation    Breaking down barriers    Difficult times remembered    Progress, but not victory    'Not united for one cause' today   .

By Lou Salome, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, Sunday, August 24, 2003

WEST PALM BEACH -- "Oh, Freedom, Oh, Freedom, Oh, Freedom over me! An' befo' I'd be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave, An' go home to my Lord an' be free."

Gloria Perry Jeter was singing softly, yet sounding the depths of her soul. She lowered her head, not wanting others in the restaurant to hear, and though barely louder than a whisper, her voice shook with power and belief. Over a salad and fish and chips, she recalled, with the vision and heart of someone who was there, the rebellious and ultimately triumphant days of 1963 and talked of the grayer days of 2003.

Forty years ago, at age 18, Gloria Perry, the daughter of local civil rights leader William Frank Perry, stood with 300,000 other privileged Americans in an open-air cathedral in Washington during one of the most moving and unifying moments of the 20th century, whether the nation knew it or not.

Her journey began here. She sang out for liberty and justice for all on the Freedom Train that rumbled through the South into history, from Miami and West Palm Beach all the way to Washington and back. With those 300,000 others, she sang the songs of freedom, equality and civil rights from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, helping to cut loose the shackles of segregation and finally end the American Civil War.

"We shall not, we shall not be moved," the Riviera Beach resident sings now as she did back then, when with two other teenagers and about 17 adults she boarded the Atlantic Coast Line train in West Palm Beach that morning of Aug. 27, 1963.

On that day two score years ago, and armed with all the simplicity of youth, Mrs. Jeter told a reporter for the Palm Beach Times: "I've got on my marching shoes. I'm not afraid; we're just going to do what is supposed to be done."

Although a teenager at the time, ready to march from Roosevelt High School to Palm Beach Junior College, which she helped to integrate, Mrs. Jeter sensed the importance of the Freedom Train, the unprecedented march on Washington for jobs and freedom, the peaceful chain that bound two races for the first time in such numbers and sinew. But even she didn't feel the full wallop until she saw the marchers -- dressed in shirts and ties, Sunday-best dresses and hats -- obliterate the grass with their feet and dangle from the crooks of trees like birds eavesdropping on history.

Among many people old enough to remember the day, it is common to recall where they were when the march took place, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shook the nation with his "I Have a Dream" speech that ended all the speeches that day and dwarfed all speakers since then.

The march, Mrs. Jeter said, marked "the beginning of a new era. We as a group of people moving out from under a reign of terror, from under the reign of ostracism, the integration of facilities, the opportunity to get jobs, to move out of the dark corner of society.

"It was a peaceful march," Mrs. Jeter said of the gathering that participants swear swelled to 1 million and which has been called the most undercounted demonstration in U.S. history. "We had a common unity. All those people coming together, walking hand-in-hand, singing freedom songs. Nobody was fighting. Dr. King knew that peaceful demonstrations were the key, and he was right."

An early warrior for civil rights

Mrs. Jeter was one of the daughters on that train ride to a revolution; Louise E. Buie was one of the mothers.

Then president of the West Palm Beach chapter of the NAACP, Mrs. Buie, now 89 and living in Riviera Beach, doesn't reach 5 feet, but she has been a giant in the local fight for equality. She joined the battle in the late 1930s, about 25 years before the civil rights movement peaked in the 1960s.

Mrs. Buie was chosen to head the West Palm Beach chapter of the NAACP in 1954, because "no one else wanted the job. They were killing us," she said.

When it came to the speeches in Washington on that hot August day, women took a back seat to the men who headed the major civil rights organizations. The women were not heard on the podium. But among the rank-and-file marchers, in the cars, buses, trains, planes and shoe leather that brought the marchers to official Washington's front yard, women clasped hands and sang We Shall Overcome with equal passion.

Mrs. Buie recalls being a co-captain of the coach filled with people from Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. She recruited blacks and whites from Fort Pierce to Deerfield Beach and west to Belle Glade. Adults paid their own train fares, but Mrs. Buie helped raise money from local churches to pay the way for Mrs. Jeter and the two other teenagers from Palm Beach County who rode the train into history.

Recruiting marchers wasn't simple. This was a national crusade to change a culture, not a picnic in the capital. One day to reach Washington, a day of marching, listening, preaching and prayer, and another day's ride to reach home and continue the struggle to melt or break hardened minds, laws and customs.

No one really knew what awaited them in Washington, in the crowd and outside it, amid the police and federal agents. Fear rode the rails through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, and singing freedom songs was one way to dispel that fear.

"When you're changing the system, somebody could blow you down anytime," Mrs. Buie said. "You don't know who your friends are or who your enemies are.

"My momma didn't want me to go. She was afraid of what would happen. So I sent my momma on another train to be with my uncle, her brother, in Georgia. She felt I was the biggest fool she ever saw in her life."

In the end, peace and unity hands clasped and fingers crossed -- rode that train northbound and spilled out all over Washington a day later. Violence, smothered, never made it to the landmarks honoring Washington and Lincoln.

"We brought food and drinks for the march," Mrs. Buie said, energized by the thought of that miracle 40 years ago. "There was no fussing. Nobody felt it was difficult. You went to do a job. There were no arguments or disagreements. It was peaceful. There were no big I's and no little you's. It was like one big family.

"You shared with everybody. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Nobody said, 'You can't drink my water or my juice.' You shared. I've never seen anything like it.

"It couldn't have been any better. It couldn't be any better until we got to heaven."

Eyes of the nation

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Graeme Phelps "Flip" Schulke was in photographers' heaven on Aug. 28, 1963.

Now a West Palm Beach resident and perhaps the principal photographic chronicler of the civil rights movement and especially of the Rev. Dr. King's role in changing the nation, serendipity was Mr. Schulke's ally that day. He remembers the details as clearly as anyone can see the details in one of his photos.

At the time, Mr. Schulke was working out of Miami for Life magazine, which assigned him and other photographers to cover the march. He describes it as "unifying, gigantic." After taking photos in the area of the Washington Monument, Mr. Schulke walked with the marchers toward the Lincoln Memorial.

The photographer posted at the memorial end of the march was bored, Mr. Schulke recalls, didn't expect much from Dr. King's culminating speech and abandoned his position to Mr. Schulke, who knew Dr. King well enough to expect thunderbolts.

"Life expected a big picnic or a race riot," Mr. Schulke said of the march. "The government treated it like it was going to be a race riot. I didn't think that. I thought King had talked to all the other leaders to think nonviolent. I could not see a race riot breaking out."

So sure was Mr. Schulke that peace would prevail that he broke with his customary practice: "I didn't hire anyone, which I usually did, to watch my back as I was shooting."

Mr. Schulke recognized that Dr. King earlier had given half of his "I Have a Dream" speech at a rally in Detroit. But everyone ignored that earlier speech, Mr. Schulke said. He knew that labor unions and Jewish leaders paid for much of the Washington march.

"I listened to the speech as I was shooting. I caught the rhythm," Mr. Schulke said. "I was sure he was going to give a fantastic speech. There was a religious excitement without exciting negative passions. It was about religion and God. In the first part of the speech, he was just a speaker. Then he became a preacher.

"I thought to myself at the end of the speech, I thought, 'This is national. By God, he's going to make the changes that need to be made.' That thought went through my head as I was shooting the pictures: This whole thing was bringing together blacks and whites, women and men, and people were holding hands. We had never seen that before."

Others served the cause of civil rights who didn't ride the peaceful train.

Breaking down barriers

Everee Jimerson Clarke of West Palm Beach was one of those people. Along with the late funeral director Roderick Stevens Sr., Mrs. Clarke integrated the dining room of the Pennsylvania Hotel on North Flagler Drive as Dr. King closed his speech with the unforgettable words, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

Mrs. Clarke and Mr. Stevens were part of an integration team, and their knock on the dining-room door was part of a plan to quench their thirst for freedom, not an urgent need to quiet their hunger for food. "They didn't say no," Mrs. Clarke said, recalling her step into the hotel dining room and into local history.

Across town, Charlie Ellington was alone at home watching Dr. King speak on television. She was alone when Dr. King was killed five years later, attended his funeral and locked Dr. King's message in her heart.

Maybe it was no surprise that a decade after Dr. King told the world he had a dream, Mrs. Ellington became the first black supervisor of special education for the northern part of Palm Beach County.

"Every time I hear his speech, I get teary-eyed," Mrs. Ellington said of the man she calls M.L. "Those people who left their homes to go to Washington and who believed in his dream, his vision, believed times had to get better."

A quiet but strong force for equality, Mrs. Ellington regrets not marching in Washington, Selma or Birmingham. But she watched, listened and acted from a distance as the power that Dr. King and others unleashed moved relentlessly forward in West Palm Beach and throughout the land.

Difficult times remembered

Now 75, Alfred "Zack" Straghn was born in Delray Beach, has been in the mortuary business there since 1951 and has operated his own funeral home for the past 23 years. Half his life was spent fighting for the right to swim at a public beach, ride a bus -- front or back -- taste the water at any public drinking fountain, eat at a restaurant with white folks, be cared for in a hospital as good as any, even to bury his dead wherever they wanted to lie.

What Dr. King did and said, Mr. Straghn took to heart in segregated Delray Beach. With others in his circle, Mr. Straghn was "glued" to his television set 40 years ago. What he saw remains riveted to Mr. Straghn's soul.

"All of the things that were happening here were inspired by what Martin Luther King was doing in other places," said Mr. Straghn, who headed the south county NAACP in 1983. "I know it was an inspiration to me."

Listen to Mr. Straghn tell his stories of a harsh life in an unequal world:

"In north Lake Worth, there was a restaurant, and we had to go to a back window to get served. Julia Kemp, a friend from Delray, went to the front counter and asked for a hamburger, and they told her they didn't serve colored people there; that you had to go to the rear window. Julia replied that she didn't order colored people. 'I want to get a hamburger,' she said. "In the early 1960s, before King's speech, we formed the Acirema (which is America spelled backward) Club. We got together to integrate the beach at Delray. We did start it, but there was some retaliation from the police department and the city fathers, so the city and the club agreed for the city to buy land at Briny Breezes for a black beach. But the people there didn't want it, so a compromise was reached; a guard with a shotgun guarded the black swimmers.

"My wife warned me not to, but I went for one dive. A rock pierced my head. I almost killed myself and had to be stitched up.

"About 1962, we swam on Delray Beach, and we were ridiculed and the beach was closed. We told the city fathers that this was our beach, too. We pay taxes in Delray Beach, not Briny Breezes. We would not compromise, and this was the beach we would swim on from now on. That integrated the beach.

"In those days all the funeral homes ran the ambulance services. It was an unwritten law that black funeral parlors picked up blacks at ambulance scenes, and white funeral parlors picked up the whites. One day the police called me to pick up a pregnant white woman who was ready to deliver and needed to go to a hospital. When I showed up, the woman's husband said, 'My wife's not getting in the nigger ambulance.' I replied, 'That's your wife, not mine,' and I left.

"If a person is drowning, you don't care who throws you a rope. If you're burning, you don't care who pours water on you. But some people would rather die than change," he said.

"Pine Ridge in West Palm Beach was the hospital for black folks in this county back then. We used to have to pull the elevator up by a rope at Pine Ridge. If you had to have an X-ray, a black ambulance went to Pine Ridge to pick you up and take you to St. Mary's and bring you back.

"Then they had water fountains for coloreds and whites, I drank out of the white fountains and the colored fountains, and a friend did the same, and we switched back and forth and we said, 'This water all tastes the same from both fountains.' But if there was one fountain, we were out luck."

Progress, but not victory

Much has changed since the 1960s: Social change came hard, and it came slowly; economic change was even more tardy and, in many minds, is still lagging.

"If there was a march today, it would be about the same things as before -- jobs, housing, education," Louise Buie said. "It's a cycle. By the time you think you got it accomplished, you're right back where you started from."

Most of the problems now are economic, Mrs. Buie believes: "If you don't have the money to enjoy things, what good are they to you? That's the way it is with integration; it's just like a snack, not a full-course meal.

"We're getting farther and farther away from Dr. King's dream because the gains we've made we're losing. I call it being downgraded. Immigrants are doing better than blacks. Companies are downsizing, and workers are getting more work to do and getting less pay."

An educator who was herself an example of integration's success, Charlie Ellington said housing opportunities have improved -- for those with the money to live where they wish.

"If I could just get more children educated and realizing the importance of education and make education available to children. Education is the key. It all boils down to education to get a better life," she said.

Gloria Perry Jeter sings the praises of integration, while lamenting and denouncing the evils of drugs, the disintegration of families and the selfishness that blocks the memories of successful people who forget where they came from. Life is grayer now, more difficult to wrestle with and change.

"Back in that time, we couldn't speak out, and if we spoke out we weren't heard. Now we can speak out and we are heard," Mrs. Jeter said. "We continue to make progress, but still people live now as they did 40 years ago. Look at the drugs the white man has thrown in our neighborhoods. Children and grandchildren, mothers and fathers have become victims.

"Today's families lack a center. Families are separated. More people are working, and fewer people are at home."

Looking back to the time when she broke down the racial barrier at the Pennsylvania Hotel dining room, Everee Jimerson Clarke said: "A lot of people have sold us out, black and white. There's no leadership in the community.

"Economic development is very important, and they haven't gotten the message here. When you take the money out of a community, there's nothing. And there's no money circulating."

Pleasant City, a 27-block area between Dixie Highway and the railroad tracks from 17th to 23rd streets in West Palm Beach, is the center of Mrs. Clarke's world.

"Lots of educated people were there, and now people have moved out. The third generation took flight. Public housing at first was good, then came poor management, and it became run-down and filled with drugs. Lots of land was lost by eminent domain."

'Not united for one cause' today

Social and political fragmentation, along with the corruption wrought by money, have destroyed the unity and power that Martin Luther King and his allies generated in a segregated society, said Edith C. Bush, executive director of the Martin Luther King Coordinating Committee in West Palm Beach and a former teacher.

"Nowadays, we're not united for one cause," Mrs. Bush said. "Everyone's in his own little world. It's almost like people are afraid to mention peace, justice, freedom, because the definitions have changed so much. People say they're doing things in the name of freedom; you do what you want as long as it satisfies you. Freedom in a segregated society meant equality. Now it's more selfish. It's what I want."

Mrs. Bush believes that black leaders and corporate America have undermined black Americans. Easier access to money has corrupted leaders, black and white, she said, and successful blacks often forget their origins. Her criticism is sharp, pointed: "African-Americans are going to have to unite themselves.

"We've made tremendous progress. But there's still a widening gap in wealth," Mrs. Bush said. "Every child needs a computer at home. That technology widens the gap between the wealthy and those who are not."

Delray's Mr. Straghn believes change must come from within individuals: "You can change all the laws you want, and a man still can keep that hatred in his heart. It's in the heart of man that you have to change. You get the inside of a person to change, and all things will change."

Many people remain below the poverty level, Mr. Straghn said. "We are still not getting paid for the work we do. People have to do more to help themselves, too. But there are improvements. There's money out there to help, but we are just getting to know how to get money from the government for businesses and for education."

The national battle to end segregation is over. But the fight for equality lumbers on, blurred though the battle lines may be.

Many people marched and spoke and died for freedom in what was the final push to end segregation 40 years ago.

Mr. Straghn put that national fight in personal and historic terms often lost in today's world:

"I was never the type of person to be afraid, because there are certain things a man should be willing to die for. That's just my way. Certain things you've got to stand up for."

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

lou_salome@pbpost.com

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