Shirley Franklin was an 18-year-old Howard University student when she stood with 200,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
At that time, she said, she couldn’t have dreamed she would go on to become a college professor and the mayor of Atlanta. Looking back, Franklin, now a visiting professor of ethics and political values at the University of Texas, says the experience was one of the highlights of her life.
“I felt I was in the right place at the right time,” she recalled this week.
Franklin said she remembers waking up early to attend the march. Her mother had traveled from Philadelphia to join Franklin, her aunt and her cousins, who lived in Washington.
“People were coming from all over,” she said. “Streets were packed. The buses were packed.”
The diversity of the crowd struck Franklin. People of different races, ethnicities and religions were all there fighting for civil rights.
Franklin was most excited to listen to John Lewis, who was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was only a few years older than her. Lewis, now a U.S. congressman from Georgia, had attracted the attention of the nation by becoming a leader in sit-ins during the early years of the civil rights movement. But Franklin said the highlight of the march was listening to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Fifty years later, civil rights leaders and historians say progress has been made in many areas, but more work remains to be done.
Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, worries that younger generations will forget the struggle of civil rights activists because it seems so far in the past and that the movement is often condensed to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Laurie Green, a UT associate professor who is teaching a class on civil rights this semester, said the movement also pushed for access to jobs, an issue that is often overlooked now but was seen by civil rights leaders as the way to reach many of their other goals.
Progress includes greater access among people of color to higher-earning and higher-level jobs, said Janice Sumler-Edmond, a history professor at Huston-Tillotson University.
But civil rights leaders and historians also point out that unemployment rates for low-income people of color are still high and schools in poor neighborhoods often are not as good as schools in more affluent areas.
Nelson Linder, chairman of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, said progress still needs to be made on the local level to have the greatest effect.
“The word is not equality anymore, it’s equity,” Linder said. “Equity is when people have the same institutions, the same income levels, and you see stability in all systems.”
And even though institutional discrimination is now illegal, the country must grapple with a different kind of discrimination that is more veiled and can include code words and behavior, Green said.
“We know that racism isn’t eliminated, and it’s harder when you’re not fighting against laws, but you’re fighting more about practices,” Green said.
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