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Memories of the March
Impromptu trip leads to historic experience
Lewis Martin, president of Hairston Funeral Home, saved this copy of the November 1963 issue of Ebony Magazine that includes a cover story about the March on Washington, which he attended. Martin is visible in the top left corner of a crowd photo. For more photos on Wednesday’s observance of the March’s 50th anniversary, see Page 1-B. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
A spur-of-the-moment decision 50 years ago to take part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has had a lasting impact on Lewis Martin’s life.
Martin, the president of Hairston Funeral Home, was living in the mortuary’s basement when one night he suddenly heard people walking around upstairs.
He went to find out what was going on. Reginald Hairston, who operated the funeral home at the time, told him that a bus was about to leave Martinsville for Washington, D.C., and a march seeking jobs and equality for black people.
Until then, “I didn’t know what the March on Washington was about,” Martin recalled Thursday. He was 19 and his mind was on other things.
Hairston also told him that “a lot of people and celebrities and athletes from around the United States are going to be there,” he recalled.
“That interested me,” Martin said, because “I like to meet people.”
Hairston encouraged him to take the trip, so he did.
The bus left Martinsville at midnight and arrived at the Lincoln Memorial on the morning of Aug. 28, 1963. Martin thought the trip would take about six hours. It actually took a little longer because the bus made several stops.
Martin had expected a few hundred people to be there — not the estimated 250,000 that formed a sea of spectators that flowed as far as his eyes could gaze. He said he simply thought, “Wow!”
“Never in my life had I been in a crowd that large,” he recalled.
He quickly realized that he was part of what would become “a momentous occasion” in the nation’s history, he said.
Despite the large crowd, marchers were friendly, Martin recalled, and he met the late professional basketball player Wilt Chamberlain.
A photo of him and some other Martinsville-area residents in the crowd appeared in the following November’s issue of Ebony magazine.
Martin heard many speeches, but there was one speaker who captivated him.
He had known that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a respected civil rights leader. He had heard King speak during a visit to Danville.
But there was something different about King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which he gave at the march, that “definitely got my attention” more than ever before, Martin said.
He reckons it was the manner in which King spoke, encouraging black people during the era of racial segregation to keep pushing for equality.
The speech “was fabulous ... very, very inspiring,” Martin said. “I listened to every word. I didn’t move” while King was speaking.
“I was so captivated that I couldn’t think,” he said, adding that although he knew he was witnessing a major historic event, he could not fully grasp its enormity at the time.
The bus trip from Martinsville was organized by Hairston and Hezekiah Morris, J.H. Adams, J.T. Allen, Ezell Hampton, William C. Harris and J.C. Richardson Sr. All were area ministers or funeral directors, Martin said.
At the memorial, Martin and others on the trip pushed their way through the crowd until they reached the first step of the Lincoln Memorial. He was unable to gauge how many steps were between him and King.
Still, “we were lucky” to get that close to him, he said.
PROGRESS TOWARD EQUALITY
Now 70, Martin recalled a time during his youth when he was visiting a local department store that, due to segregation, had separate water fountains for black and white customers. After looking around to make sure no one was looking, he took a sip from the white fountain to see if the water tasted differently than the water in the black fountain.
It did not. He realized it was the same water flowing through one pipe that branched off to two fountains.
That is sort of the way he views race relations today.
“God made us all equal, regardless of the color of our skin,” Martin said. Regardless of whether a person is white, black or of some other race or ethnicity, “we all bleed red.”
Martin surmised that he became one of King’s biggest admirers after seeing him in Washington. Afterward, he listened to all of King’s speeches and bought as many magazines with features about King as he could.
He never met King. However, he said that when King was assassinated in 1968, “it was just like I had lost my biological brother or sister.”
“I just could not believe that a person who was trying to help (people make their lives better) was run down like that,” said Martin, who now co-owns Hairston Funeral Home with Kerry Smith, who serves as vice president.
Not only is 2013 the 50th anniversary of the march and King’s speech, but it also is the 50th anniversary of Martin’s employment at the mortuary, he noted.
Martin participated in some civil rights protests in uptown Martinsville in the 1960s, including sit-ins at lunch counters at the former Woolworth’s and Eagle’s stores. Unlike similar protests elsewhere, those were peaceful.
“We didn’t get served, but nobody forced us out,” he recalled. Eventually, the protesters just left.
Martin said when he goes into restaurants today, servers provide him with the same respect as they do white people. He said he knows that they are trained to treat people equally but at the least, “I like to think it’s genuine.”
After pausing a moment to reflect, Martin said what impressed him most about the “I Have a Dream” speech was that King predicted that his four children eventually would grow up in a nation free of bigotry.
“We’ve come a long way, but that dream is not complete yet,” Martin said.
It is his dream that bigotry someday no longer will exist. Accomplishing that will require teaching people that they have more similarities than differences, he indicated.
It may be easier said than done.
“I like to be optimistic,” Martin said, “but I think there will always be some (bigotry) due to the nature of some people.”