February. On the calendar this is Black History Month. For URI Associate Theatre Professor Bryna Wortman, however, it is so much more than that. Regrettably I was not able to speak to her in person after the showing of ‘The March’, a PBS documentary about the 1963 March on Washington made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, I was able to speak to her over the phone.
“I was at the March,” said Wortman. “I was there. I support civil rights, I support diversity, I support equality. I was there as a very young person because I truly believed in progress and moving forward in racial relations. We were just so behind. People of color in the South were drinking at ‘For Colored” colored fountains.”
In school you’re taught about the Civil Rights movement. It’s one thing to hear your teachers tell you about it, but it’s another to hear about it from someone who was actually there in Washington D.C. when Dr. King and others spoke to the nation.
The March focused on the behind the scenes aspects of thousands of people’s efforts to make it happen. The idea was only a dream until the Birmingham riots occurred, making Eugene “Bull” Connor infamous, while the events were aired on national television. Never before had the whole nation been exposed to such violent hate because of someone’s skin color.
Turning a blind eye to the Civil Rights Movement was no longer an option for America. The problems that the African American community faced had become too real and too monumental for people to ignore. If it hadn’t been for the atrocities in Birmingham, the March on Washington might not have happened.
Dr. King found that speaking in front of small groups was no longer effective. He knew that the monumental March would soon become a reality if he and other Civil Rights leaders made it so.
He could not have done it himself though. Alongside Dr. King were men such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. The intentions were purely peaceful, but they would have to convince President Kennedy that it would go without a hitch before it could actually happen. By the end of the discussion, a compromise was reached; the protesters would be gone by nightfall, and should things take a violent turn, the army would be on standby.
Things went according to plan and on August 28, 1963, history was made when 200,000 marchers of every color convened in Washington D.C.
Unfortunately President Kennedy was killed in November 1963 before he could finish what he and Dr. King had started. However one year later, President Johnson put the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 into place and the rocky road to equality was made somewhat smoother.
“This was a lesson in American history. Not black history, but American history. It’s about time that we all recognize that,” said Professor Wortman. For more information about Black History Month, stop by the Multicultural Center, located near the Memorial Union.