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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Witnesses to King’s march recall unity, spirituality

TAMPA — Anthony L. Bryant Sr., 68, remembers what life was like for black people in St. Petersburg before the civil rights movement.

The son of a minister and a missionary, he attended then all-black Gibbs High School. Blacks weren’t allowed to sit at the counter at Webb’s City drug store or hang out on St. Pete Beach, he said. Some of his friends chose not to patronize places like McDonald’s, where they only would be served at the “colored” window.

He couldn’t wait to leave the area after graduating from high school, Bryant said.

He joined the Army in 1963 and, while on leave from basic training, visited his sister in Washington, D.C. On the morning of Aug. 28, Bryant was in the crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial, standing at the edge of the reflecting pool so he could see over the huge crowd.

“That was the most elevating experience I’ve ever had, to have so many people focused on the same thing that was so important to not only African-Americans but Caucasians, also,” he said. “It was just the most spiritual experience I ever had.”

Bryant is one of nine Tampa Bay area residents who recorded recollections of their experiences at the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” for a local oral history program. Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the march and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

The interviews were recorded on video and will be shown beginning at 2:30 p.m. today at the West Tampa Branch Library, 2312 W. Union St., said Stacey Jurewicz, director of adult programming for the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative.

Among the nine people who were interviewed for the series, two were women and two were white men, Jurewicz said. One of them didn’t attend the march, but he was involved in other protests and marches about the same time, she said.

Althea Lee of Valrico was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1963. Her house served as headquarters for Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the march, Lee said.

She was 23 years old when her family and friends took the train from Penn Station to the Capitol.

“It was just a very joyful, loving experience,” Lee said. “It was not a black thing and it was not a white thing. It was a love fest of people who wanted the same thing and wanted to make change.”

Bryant and Lee remember the march as an almost-religious experience. They weren’t afraid that other protesters would show up with bombs or guns. It was a peaceful and upbeat journey, Lee said.

“Martin Luther King was just the icing on the cake,” she said.

Bryant said he was struck by how many people of different races and backgrounds were there.

“It wasn’t just pockets of people; it was a nation of people saying, ‘This is wrong; this needs to be corrected,’” he said.

That diversity was what made it a march rather than a protest, Lee said. “It was everybody’s walk,” she said. “It was everybody’s march. To have been there, to have felt it, I consider that a blessing.”

Jurewicz said each participant in the oral history series offered a unique perspective on the famous march and had a different reaction to it. All of them seemed eager to share their views after racial questions arose during the recent George Zimmerman trial, said Jessica Miller, another librarian who helped Jurewicz with the project.

“Their point is that that was a great day, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.

There still is racial discrimination, Bryant said, though it isn’t as prominent as it was 50 years ago. It is a problem that can be fixed, “But we all have to pull the carriage in that same direction,” he said.

Bryant wanted to record his story in case he wasn’t able to attend the 50th anniversary ceremonies in Washington, D.C., this weekend.

Lee wanted to make sure the library got recordings from people who were at the 1963 march.

On the 100th anniversary, her sons will be in their 80s, she said. Lee has told them what she saw and felt during the speeches, but they won’t be able to re-tell her story the way she tells it. The people who were at the march are getting older and fewer are alive with each passing year, she said.

“History is not created by one person,” Lee said. “We created history by just being there.”

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Twitter: @LizBehrmanTBO

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