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I have a dream: 50 years later

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Charlottean was there at historic civil rights moment

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/08/24/17/06/11PgDx.Em.138.jpeg|217
    DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Charles Jones, who attended the 1963 March on Washington, in his office last week.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/08/24/17/06/1lgDal.Em.138.jpeg|201
    DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Charles Jones, left, who attended the 1963 March on Washington, and wife Jacqueline, in his office.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/08/24/17/06/VPEQ9.Em.138.jpeg|236
    DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Charles Jones displays on his desk a replica of a bus presented to him upon the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in 2001.

Fifty years ago this week, Charlotte attorney Charles Jones was a 26-year-old law student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a civil rights activist who’d led enough sit-ins and demonstrations to be on a first-name basis with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jones and King had differences of opinion on occasion, but he says they respected each other. So there was no question on Aug. 28, 1963, that Jones was going to be at the March on Washington, where King gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Raised until age 10 in Chester County, S.C., Jones’ family moved in 1947 to Charlotte, where his father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother was an English teacher at Johnson C. Smith University.

It was his parents’ whispers of a lynching that first piqued his interest in the harsh realities of racism. But the moment that changed his life forever was learning in 1960 of a group of black college students in Greensboro who sat down at a segregated lunch counter and refused to move.

Within a week, Jones and hundreds of other Johnson C. Smith students were staging peaceful sit-ins at lunch counters in uptown Charlotte.

Over the next two years, he plunged into the civil rights movement as a Freedom Rider, and was there as friends were beaten, jailed and killed. In the process, Jones says he was arrested eight times, including twice with King. 

Here are 76-year-old Charlotte attorney Charles Jones’ recollections of Aug. 28, 1963 – the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech to hundreds of thousands of marchers who had traveled to Washington, D.C. Jones begins with walking from the campus of Howard University School of Law to the Lincoln Memorial.

“It was just a couple of miles from Howard to the mall. I started by myself and after a while I noticed some other folks, folks I didn’t know, all heading in the same direction. Then, I started seeing people pouring off buses and it just started growing, and it seemed to have no end.

As you walked and the numbers expanded, you got this feeling. I guess you’d call it a hopeful optimism.

“Once I got there, I saw this sea of faces and I realized, oh my, this is going to make a difference. It has to make a difference. You see pictures of it today, and they don’t do it justice.

I had been to mass meetings of 500 people, 600, even 700, but it was a mass meeting times 1,000. People as far as the eye could see.

I had never seen that many black people in one place. When you look back on that period, you did not see that many black faces in the media, not much at all. And to see that many all in one place, it was clear to all of us there together that this would have an impact on the Congress, on the presidency, and the nation.

It wasn’t just black people, but also white people, nuns, people from around the globe.

This was a moment that not only brought together people, but brought together all the issues that we had been dealing with, the sit-ins, the freedom rides, voting rights, and the literacy tests with segregationist registrars asking things like: ‘How many bubbles in a bar of soap, boy!’

Getting arrested. Getting shot at.

That was what we brought with us to this historic place.

We had all been fighting against segregation for so long, and suddenly we were all together and you realized just what you had been a part of. You realized how really big it all was.

That in itself was a statement.

“I was about eight rows from where the stage was, to the left. And I could see the elders backstage, talking about their strategies, talking about what they were going to say. I guess you would say I was eavesdropping.

Martin was a little uneasy. Here it was, the capital of the United States of America and all these were people waiting, and the elders knew they had to take advantage of this moment. Everybody was still refining what they were going to say, up to the moment the program started.

I remember talking to (event speaker) John Lewis and I thought I heard Martin talking about what he was going to say, and I remember hearing (gospel music legend) Mahalia Jackson say: ‘Talk about the dream, Martin. Talk about the dream!’

At that moment, his whole spirit and his body calmed.

It was 20 minutes before he was supposed to take the stage! He crafted the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in his head!

“Everyone was worried about what we were going to do. The president was uneasy, most of Congress was very uneasy, (U.S. Attorney General) Bobby Kennedy was uneasy.

We activists knew whatever was said, it would involve saying to Congress and to the president: “Y’all get something done!”

Now, please appreciate that I had first met Martin in 1960, when he came to Charlotte and he started inviting me to come with him to mass gatherings to be a spokesperson for students. … We had gotten arrested together.

I knew he had a powerful capacity to organize words and incorporate the spirit in ways that moved people to a whole other place.

So, as he began to talk that day, I said: ‘Oh, God, here it comes.’ And in that moment, he began to put everything in context, the importance of what had been happening all over the country.

And when he got to, ‘I have a dream … that my four little children will one day live in a nation … where they will not be judged by the color of their skin … but by the content of their character,’ it all came together in that moment.

The crowd. The emotion. The pleas. People were saying ‘Amen! Amen!’

It was instinctual.

He incorporated what everybody – black, white, Jew, Gentile, race and place – held dear as their sense of humanity, that common connection that we all feel.

This is my dream. This is our dream. This is humanity’s dream.

By the time he had finished, society had changed. We had changed, and we were not going to let it go back to the way it was.

“I get asked questions a lot about that day, young people wanting to know what it was like to be there and how it all happened.

I feel it’s my duty to tell the story as much as possible, my honor to Martin, and I always end it by taking their hand and telling them that I’m passing on that light to them, the next generation.

“The process continues with you,” I tell them. You have to help change the world. I know it’s possible, because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen one man make a difference.

Now living in a century-old home near Johnson C. Smith, Jones continues to practice law, and is slowly putting together a memoir of his role in the civil rights movement.

Instead of attending the 50th anniversary this week, the father of seven and his wife, Jackie, are staying home for a family reunion that will include their first meeting with a grandson named Jayden Jones, who lives in Long Island, N.Y.

The boy, who is 2, is the first of his four grandchildren to carry the Jones name, which the proud grandpa said carries with it great responsibility.

“I’m going to walk all the grandchildren all through the office, show them all the pictures of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and wait for their questions.”

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