CHARLOTTESVILLE, OCT. 1 -- About 500 people, including some in wheelchairs, paraded through the Charlottesville area and onto the University of Virginia campus today to draw attention to racial discrimination in employment and education.
"Our rally today is about power, jobs and dreams," the Rev. Wayne Arnason, pastor of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, told the crowd gathered outside the Albemarle County Office Building.
The Rally for Racial Justice, which included an appearance by the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, retired head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a veteran of 35 years of civil rights protests, began in the morning with about 100 people listening to speeches outside City Hall.
The demonstration gained strength as the singing, chanting protesters -- including several people in wheelchairs -- marched arm-in-arm through the downtown mall and up Preston Avenue as police officers held midday traffic at bay.
The protesters, some of whom were pushing strollers with children, also marched peacefully up Charlottesville streets to the Rotunda at the university, where the Board of Visitors was meeting. The board has come under fire for its investments in South Africa, and university administrators have been criticized for not vigorously recruiting black students and faculty.
Abernathy told the protesters that "the forces of evil are trying to turn back the hands of progress. We have come a long way in our struggle, but we still have a long way to go. It's true that we may not get everything we fight for, but we must fight for it."
Abernathy chastised the university for not accepting part-time students, saying the exclusion denies admission to blacks who must work to support themselves. He added that he hoped the university would divest its holdings in South Africa, whose white-minority government denies the vote to the black majority.
After the rally, Abernathy met with university President Robert O'Neil briefly as the Board of Visitors heard a report on black faculty hiring. A university spokesman said U-Va. had added several black faculty members, but he wasn't sure whether the increase would result in an overall rise in the percentage of black faculty members.
Arnason and other speakers told the protesters that action was needed to lower the black unemployment rate, advance blacks above low-status jobs and improve educational opportunities for black children.
All the speakers noted that some progress had been made, citing efforts by local governments to correct the employment disparities and U-Va.'s acceptance this week of a report on Afro-American affairs. But the speakers also stressed that such efforts must be scrutinized to ensure that progress is being made.