When Willie Dove boarded a bus to Washington, D.C. in August 28, 1963, he didn’t realize the magnitude of what he would witness.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march on Washington, Dove said he knew the march’s participants were doing meaningful work at the time. But the full historic impact wasn’t clear until King’s assassination.
“For me, I knew it was significant,” he said. “I knew it was something that needed to be done, but it’s much bigger than what I realized or what any of us realized at that age.”
Dove, who now lives in Bonner Springs and represents part of Gardner in the Kansas House of Representatives, was a high school student when boarded the bus for Washington, D.C. He joined approximately 70 people from two churches on two busses headed to hear a live speech that would make history.
“It was meaningful in a way that we knew we were tired of being spit upon. Tired of going to the back door of a restaurant to get food. Tired of when we were traveling using different restrooms,” Dove said.
Many of the busses’ riders were joyous about the journey, singing songs along the way. Others were afraid.
“You had more serious individuals more concerned about safety,” Dove recalled. “At that age, for me, it was difficult to feel any fear.”
Dove jumped into the civil rights movement long before the trip to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. He’d marched in New Bern, NC, and participated in sit-ins. Though police never turned hoses on Dove, he remembers one time when officers did bring out a German Shepherd.
“We had suffered a lot in the town, because of discrimination,” Dove explained. “We never got hosed, but it was always there.”
Not every New Bern activist was given a seat on the bus. Civil rights organizers wanted those they were certain could march without resorting to violence.
“There were many classes that were held to make sure that individuals knew and understood that this was not a violent march,” he explained. “That was deeply embedded.”
Dove remembers a time when he didn’t understand prejudice. He attended Catholic schools, where there were some white teachers and staff.
He was raised by his grandmother , who had acclimated to the cultural environment of the deep South.
“Being a youngster, you would think I would do the same, but I was pretty vocal about mistreatment,” Dove said.
When he would see a sign that said blacks weren’t allowed, he would ask why.
“She would say, because they don’t want you in there,” Dove said.
He sat down at a soda fountain once and was told he couldn’t sit there. Dove didn’t understand, because others were sitting there.
“She had to sit me down and explain what prejudice was,” he said.
By the time he was a teenager, Dove was ready to do something about the injustices. That included being an active participant in local civil rights groups, and going to Washington to march.
Of course, he’d heard of Dr. King.
“You’ve got to put yourself in a position where you’ve heard about this person. He’s been put in jail. He’s been stomped upon. He’s been called everything that you could imagine – things you would never say to any individual. You wouldn’t say the things that you heard people say to him or to marchers that were marching in the streets of New Bern,” Dove said.
When the bus arrived in D.C., the North Carolina activists were serious. A heavy police presence and peaceful advocates created a very controlled environment.
“We knew if things got out of hand what the consequences might have been, which is not being heard or people seeing something different that what we were taught,” Dove said.
The marchers arrived in Washington with a purpose – to raise their voices in peaceful protest.
“We were there because we had been prepared to do this, and we were going to be heard, because that was the right thing to do,” Dove explained.
The enormous crowd stretched from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and down to the Washington Monument.
“That place was packed, and it was at least three or four football fields of people,” Dove recalled. “It went on and on almost forever, and they were not just black people.”
Dove was perhaps 100 yards from where King would address the masses, and when King began to speak, the crowd fell silent.
“I get chills just thinking about it,” Dove said. “When he began to speak, it became – the atmosphere completely changed. It was just quiet. People just wanted to hear. It was mesmerizing to stand there and to listen to what Dr. King had to say.”
Fifty years later, the country has made strides, Dove said.
“The fact that we have elected a president of color says a lot,” he said.
Dove, a Republican, is not a fan of the president, however.
“What it says is that a lot of individuals have not looked at color. But it’s disheartening, because I hope individuals who voted for the president of the United States do not feel that all people of color are that divisive or that much of a liar. That’s what I fear.”
Dove, a black leader in his own right, also finds himself on the other side of several organizations and black leaders now claiming to carry the mantle of civil rights today. Though Dove remains a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he will not support the group financially.
The organization, and the civil rights movement, has gone secular, specifically with their support of gay marriage, Dove said. At one time, faith and morality were at the center of the civil rights movement.
“If you listen to Dr. King’s speech, and you listen to those individuals who were with him, they were ministers,” Dove said. “They were men of God. They felt very strong about God. You didn’t get to be a minister by preaching same sex marriage. It’s been a complete change from everything the NAACP was for.”
Dove is equally disturbed by divisive leaders like Jesse Jackson who use race to make a profit.
“We have individuals that are using the black movement as an opportunity to make money,” Dove said. “That’s what it really comes down to. When you stop dividing people, money stops flowing.”
Dove sees the future of the civil rights movement as a movement for personal responsibility.
“When you can take care of yourself, you don’t need Jesse Jackson. You don’t need Al Sharpton,” Dove said.
Essentially, it’s the lesson Dove learned from his grandmother – to take care of himself and to serve others. While the civil rights movement, its leaders and the NAACP made a difference in his life, Dove believes there will never be a movement that fully eradicates prejudice.
“It’s sad, but I don’t think that we’re ever going to come to a point where there will be no prejudice,” he said. “We’re human beings and individuals will always make mistakes.”
Legislator recalls Dr. King’s march, historic speech 50 years later