After a Look Back, Students Embrace Opportunity to March on Washington - Higher Education
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After a Look Back, Students Embrace Opportunity to March on Washington

by Ronald Roach

March

Martin Luther King, Jr. and others addressed more than 250,000 people at the March on Washington in 1963. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

As a peer mentor working with incoming freshman students, Endaisha Dublin reported to Cheyney State University a week earlier than her upperclassman schoolmates. The long hours this past week of helping students move in to their dorms and adjust to college life led to an unexpected opportunity for the 19-year-old junior biology major.

Along with 46 freshman students and three peer mentors, Dublin, a native of Bloomfield, N.J., will be traveling to Washington, D.C. early Saturday morning to participate in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington.

“This is incredible. I’m so excited about being part of history,” she said.

Among the thousands of people traveling to Washington on Saturday to attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, college students such as Dublin are enthusiastically embracing the event as a time to claim their own moment in the American Civil Rights Movement.

“I’m absolutely ecstatic about traveling to Washington to celebrate what is one of the most historic Civil Rights Movement events,” said Travonya Kenly, a junior ecology major at Cheyney State University.

Kenly, also a peer mentor to Cheyney freshman students, explained that participating in the march’s commemoration will represent for her the culmination of many hours of hearing stories from relatives, watching documentaries, and reading books about the Civil Rights Movement. “I’ve been learning about the March on Washington and civil rights since I was really young. Being in D.C. represents the ultimate for me,” she said.

With the March on Washington commemoration being marked by organizations, particularly colleges and universities, all over the nation this and next week, Saturday’s march retracing the historic 1963 route will likely be the nation’s largest anniversary event. An estimated 150,000 people are expected to be in Washington on Saturday for the march. The original march attracted more than 250,000.

On Wednesday, August 28, the actual anniversary day, a second commemorative march will be held during which President Barack Obama will deliver a speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are also expected to speak.

“The March on Washington was the victorious culmination of many years of organizing and of mobilization. … Many of the issues that were on the table during the march — education, housing, comprehensive civil rights legislation, and voting rights — still resonate today,” said Dr. Vicki Crawford, the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection at Morehouse College.

Along with Morehouse students, Crawford will be in Washington this weekend representing the private historically Black college, which is the undergraduate institution at which King earned his bachelor’s degree. “With Martin Luther King, Jr. being Morehouse’s most illustrious alum and (him) being a national and global figure, we certainly want to be there for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington,” she said.

This coming Wednesday, Crawford, as director of the MLK archive collection, will be leading a teach-in and document viewing to commemorate the March on Washington. The teach-in will take place at the Robert W. Woodruff LIbrary at the Atlanta University Center. The teach-in will be an educational forum for students and the local community to learn about the momentous events of 1963.

“We feel very much a part of the trajectory of history. And we want our students to know, too, that we all are a part of this trajectory that dates back to that era and still continues,” Crawford said.

In addition to Morehouse and Cheyney State, hundreds of students from other historically Black schools are traveling to Washington this weekend. Under the coordination of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) organization, a number of HBCU campuses are sending students and staff to participate in a coordinated march from the National Education Association headquarters in downtown Washington to the National Mall. With banners and placards, those HBCU students will be bringing attention to the college affordability issue as they join the crowd and listen to speakers on the National Mall.

Lezli Baskerville, the NAFEO president and CEO, said the organization, which represents the interests of HBCUs and Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs) in Washington, has a twofold purpose in coordinating HBCU and PBI marchers on Saturday. The first is to “educate the students about the historical role of students, particularly HBCU students in shaping the Civil Rights Movement and social justice movements of the nation,” she said.

The second purpose is to engage students in an advocacy experience that brings to light recent struggles families have had with financing college at HBCUs. “At a time when African-Americans have lost 53 percent of their wealth (due to the recession), there are things this nation must do to make college affordable,” Baskerville said.

She noted that significant numbers of parents of HBCU students have been disproportionately hit by an unexpected change in guidelines for Parent PLUS Loan credit worthiness. Over the past year, parents of more than 28,000 students attending HBCUs were denied loans. It’s been estimated that HBCUs collectively lost more than $150 million in revenue during the 2012-13 academic year.

Baskerville added that HBCU and PBI student marchers are also bringing attention to recent shifts in Pell Grant policies, which have adversely affected students on financial aid.

Among American colleges and universities reporting unique March on Washington anniversary activities is Ithaca College. James Rada, an associate professor of journalism in the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, is bringing 18 communications students to Washington to conduct on-site interviews in partnership with NBC News and PBS for their extended coverage of the historic events.

Rada said that a group of 13 students will conduct on-camera interviews on Saturday for NBC’s weekend news coverage and five additional students will be in Washington on Wednesday providing coverage for PBS.

“Ithaca College is funding three trips; we took one in March to do oral histories as part of the (‘Meet Me at Equality: The People’s March on Washington’) documentary,” Rada said, noting that the documentary which features interviews with 1963 march participants will be airing on Wednesday and Thursday on PBS stations.

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