Standing about 15 feet from civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Roosevelt Thompson watched the crowd inhale the words of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the nation’s capital.
“It was awesome and powerful,” said Thompson, who now lives in Las Vegas. “We were all still. Even though we all had an ax to grind and all wanted change, we knew the importance of the moment. This was the outcrying of 150 years of frustration.”
No more being pushed to the back of the bus.
No more being denied a seat at restaurants.
Thompson knows what he’s talking about. He has fought most of his adult life for the transformation that King talked about on that magical day 50 years ago.
He plans to join hundreds of other Las Vegas residents Saturday at an anniversary celebration — being replicated in other cities around the nation — of King and his dream.
The event starts at 8 a.m. with a march from Doolittle Park to the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Carey Avenue, home of the Martin Luther King statue. Speeches will start at 9 a.m.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” King told the crowd on Aug. 28, 1963, when the nation was fighting a massive civil rights battle. “I have a dream that my four 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.”
Out of hundreds of marches and demonstrations Thompson has been to, the March on Washington was the largest.
An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people gathered.
“It was people as far as the eye can see,” he said.
Thompson was nervous, though. There were many organizations wanting different things for the black community.
But then King spoke.
“He put a face on the injustice and the downtrodden,” he said. “And for the first time, people knew we had to be taken seriously.”
It was an important day for Thompson, who suffered through racism just like many other African-Americans.
Thompson, born and raised in Chicago, enlisted in the Army and served in the Korean War. He returned to Chicago only to face racism along with unemployment.
“I tried to get a job at a veterans hospital,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe it. They gave every white man who came in a job then told me they would put me on a wait list.”
The experience left Thompson angry and motivated to work for an end to the injustice.
“And I’ve been an organizer for 60 years,” he said. “I think at that time, being a black man, you had to be an organizer if you wanted change.”
His work has included organizing voters and helping felons regain their rights.
Thompson said Wednesday that, although changes have been made since King’s historic speech, he hasn’t seen the full dream that the civil rights leader spoke of.
“We had more access” to opportunities, he said. “It wasn’t enough to just change the laws. We needed to change the minds of people.”
Issues such as the number of black men in prisons or the black unemployment rate make Thompson skeptical.
He said policies such as the New York Police Department’s Stop and Frisk, — allowing officers to question individuals, many who were minorities, without probable cause — and “Stand Your Ground” laws — which give people the right to use deadly force in self-defense and recently was debated in the death of a black teenager — have pushed the country backward.
“It’s like black men are more vilified and more feared now than they were back then,” Thompson said.
Rodney Smith, an organizer for Saturday’s anniversary rally and march in Las Vegas, hopes that, while celebrating history, the community can refocus on parts of the dream yet to come to fruition.
Back then, crowds from across the United States swarmed Washington to secure the right to vote through enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution, desegregate schools and obtain equal access to employment and housing opportunities.
Progress has been made, but some of those issues have resurfaced.
“It is really amazing that some of the agenda items being talked about back then are going to be talked about again,” Smith said. “We have seen some positive changes. Some things are going backwards … and need to (be) readdressed.”
Voting rights is again ushering a rallying cry from the African-American community after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to invalidate a key provision.
“It’s like the clock rolled back,” he said.
Smith said even the discussion of the minimum wage is reminiscent of what the African-American community wanted at the time.
“Now, it’s not just asking for a minimum wage but a livable wage,” he said.
But there have been positive steps forward, he said.
“Today, we will be escorted by the police instead of being beaten by them,” Smith said about the march. “That shows how far we’ve come.”
Thompson doesn’t know whether Saturday will have the same impact as the 1963 demonstration.
Though he has done his time as an activist, he plans to show up and continue his work. This time he will be registering voters.
Each step he takes in this direction is to help the community move forward.
“That day (at the march) Doctor King said that we are not going back,” Thompson said. “We are not going back to the way things were.”