‘You knew things would be different’: How the March changed one family

August 23, 2013
Men, women and children of all races find cool relief at the reflecting pool on the Mall on Aug. 28, 1963. (AP)
Men, women and children of all races found cool relief at the reflecting pool on the Mall on Aug. 28, 1963. (AP)

My sister remembers the day – and one particular moment. To get to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963, Joan Curtis did not have far to travel. But as part of the contingent from the Civic Interest Group (CIG), a Baltimore-based civil rights group affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she realized how big a step it was and how important that day could be.

“It was a bright, sunny summer day and I was happy to be there, and I was 18 and I was smiling and everything,” Joan recently recalled. Her assignment was to stand in front of a tent, handing out signs as fast as they were being made for travelers who wanted to carry slogans such as “We Shall Overcome” as they filled every spot on the National Mall.

There was a woman from the Midwest – a white woman – with her son, a little boy about 10 years old. She had a camera to make home movies, and after Joan handed her a sign, the woman had a request. “Look at you, with that smile on your face,” my sister remembered her saying. “I want to get that on my movie camera. Could you do that again, walk back and hand me that sign?”

When I spoke with my sister, prodding her memories of the day, she said that the mother and son from the Midwest were indicative of the diversity of the day’s crowd and wondered if the Joan of 1963, a smiling freshman from Morgan State, lives on in a 50-year-old movie clip. Does that boy, who would be around 60 now, watch it to bring back memories of his own?

There was a television set up under the tent, so the volunteers could see everything that was going on. After she finished giving out signs, the speakers had already started. Joan and a friend tried walking up to the Lincoln Memorial – “We wanted to see the movie stars,” which that day included Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., Paul Newman and Marlon Brando. “I didn’t. … You could barely move.”

“It was wonderful!” she said. “I thought that everything was wonderful. … You could hear the speeches. You didn’t have to be right there.”

Everybody talks about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But Joan told me, “It wasn’t just that speech. It was all the speeches.” She was particularly impressed with the words of John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, then a SNCC leader. “Such camaraderie, all these people black and white, there were no problems. It was the mood. You knew you were part of something special, just being there. You knew things would be different.”

That day was a family affair. Besides Joan, my two brothers, the oldest of five kids, were CIG members, already sit-in and march veterans by 1963. In 1961, Douglass Anthony “Tony” Curtis was arrested as he waited to be served at a segregated Baltimore diner. The day of the March on Washington, he and his green and white Ford Fairlane ran any errand they were asked to do.

My oldest brother, Thomas Curtis, a third-year law student at Villanova University, helped with logistics and public relations. It was his job, in the time before cell phones, to set up a tent with phones lines so reporters could file stories. Thomas remembered a moment earlier that summer, when he was strolling to March planning offices in Baltimore and was confronted by a white man who asked if he was going to the D.C. event. When Thomas said, “Yes,” the man kept yelling, “I’m going to shoot you, hoss.”  My brother, a member of his college ROTC and rifle team, was a believer in nonviolence, but figured, “If you shoot me, you’re going to have the first shot but you’d better not miss.”

“You knew it was history,” Thomas recalled of the March when we spoke this week, especially with the presence of A. Philip Randolph, who had used the threat of a march to persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to sign a Fair Employment Act in the 1940s.

Our mother, Evelyn Curtis, made sure she served breakfast and packed lunches for her three children before she dressed in her Sunday best and boarded a church bus for Washington. When I read that some politicians feared violence, I have to laugh. March participants looked pressed and classy in suits and dresses, jackets and hats.

Though Mom had not told anyone of her plans, no one was surprised. She was a moderate Republican, active in election politics, who registered her share of voters.

As the youngest, I watched at home, with my sister Janice, next to me in age, babysitting. Janice said she enjoyed checking in on the event with me. “We had a good time,” she tells me and I believe her, “listening to the speeches and the music, pointing out the people we recognized, like Harry Belafonte.”

Our father, Thomas Eugene Curtis, rushed home from work to catch what he could on TV. Mom and Dad were part of the movement. They were never arrested, but they were ready with the deed to the house if it was needed for Tony’s bail. Because of the efforts of civil rights attorney Juanita Jackson Mitchell, that wasn’t necessary. They welcomed integrated groups into our home for strategy sessions when some in the older generations weren’t completely on board with the passion and urgency of young activists.

Though too young to know exactly what the words meant, I learned the words to “Keep your eyes on the prize,” “We are soldiers” and a long list of other freedom songs. My sister tells me I sang out loud and strong in the front of a bus that carried folks to a local shopping center for a voter registration drive. Now that I’m old enough to realize the danger that went along with the drama, I’m impressed with what those teenagers – some in my own family — were able to accomplish with the backing of parents who looked through their fear to offer wholehearted support and love.

My parents died years ago; Tony joined them before he had a chance to see an African-American president. I covered the Democratic National Convention in 2008 in Denver, and as Barack Obama accepted the nomination for president under a clear sky, I sat there, my cell phone open, with Joan on the other end of the line. We listened to history being made and thought of Tony.

Thomas’s first job out of law school was as a congressional staffer for legislative counsel, where he worked on the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Freedom of Information and clean water legislation. For the D.C. subway bill, he worked on language that required Metro to be accessible for the handicapped. “They pay their taxes; they should be able to use it,” he said. “Folks with disabilities look to part of the civil rights movement for their inspiration.” His work has come full circle, as he now directs transportation policies for the Maryland department of disabilities.

As the 50th anniversary of the march approaches, Joan said she was feeling sadness that some of the issues – such as voting rights – are still being litigated. “It never occurred to me it would happen,” she said. She said she believes Saturday’s march is a needed reminder of the fight.

She has never stopped telling the stories of the civil rights movement, of that sunny Aug. 28, 1963. She has taken special care to repeat them to her daughter. “I feel like I contributed to this country, and I feel that I contributed to the world. I’m very proud of it.”

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3
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