Leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's "Pilgrimage to Washington" reached this historic Civil War city this afternoon and hailed today's Senate passage of an extension of the federal Voting Rights Act.
But they promised to continue their 2 1/2-month odyssey to Washington, as one protester put it, "to celebrate and agitate."
"It's not a perfect piece of legislation," said the SCLC president, Dr. Joseph Lowery, as he entered Shiloh Baptist Church. "But it's very significant. It comes at a time when America needed to send a message to black and brown communities that the country is not engaged in retreat."
The group of about 60 protesters had driven through the South toward the nation's capital since April 19, when it left Tuskegee, Ala., in a caravan of rented cars and vans. The protesters are due in Alexandria tomorrow, and are expected to set up a small camp similar in intent if not size to the "Resurrection City" of 1968.
"We got the word when we went through Sen. Strom Thurmond's home town earlier this month that this thing was going to pass," Lowery said. "But we still have one more river to cross, and that's economic. America may be in a recession, but black people are having a depression." He said unemployment among black young adults is above 50 percent.
Some of the group, most of them black men in their 20s and 30s, voiced cautious gratification at the Senate vote. "It wasn't just Ronald Reagan," said Harry Stone, 40, a building contractor from Atlanta. "It was a lot of people, and they just need a flunkey. But, hey, this is the 20th century--there's no way they can tell a man, black or white, that he can't vote. Maybe they could 20 years ago, but not now."
"It's not just the vote," said Ronald Greene, 24, of Atlanta. "It's the budget cuts and the whole mess."
The group arrived in Fredericksburg from Richmond today at noon. Bearing placards and chanting, "Ronald Reagan, he's no good, send him back to Hollywood," the marchers walked through the center of town and fanned out through black neighborhoods to collect signatures for their pro-voting rights petitions.
Though the SCLC's budget for this trip was more than $200,000, the marchers have not been traveling luxury class. Avoiding hotels and restaurants, they relied instead on the support of churches and local black civic associations. The young men carried food and laundry sacks, as well as garment bags filled with suits they have worn to countless church rallies in more than 70 cities. At night they usually retired to cots in school gymnasiums or private homes.
"We've been getting three squares a day. Some of us are living better than we did at home," said Stone. "We're getting lots of chicken for dinner, true, but we always get a beautiful breakfast and we get doctors' check-ups every three or four days."
"It's like a family," said Frederick McKoy, 21, a student at Morehouse College. "We have arguments, but it's to be expected." Group members said the trip from Alabama through the Carolinas was uneventful, except that in North Carolina they encountered heckling and mention of the Ku Klux Klan.
Some also expressed bitterness at the arrest two weeks ago in Williamston, N.C., of SCLC organizer the Rev. James Orange of Atlanta for not serving a six-month jail term received nine years ago for failing to disperse during a civil rights demonstration.
Yet, the mood in Fredericksburg was optimistic. "I see this as the second part to what happened in the '60s," said McKoy. "My parents are well off but there are a lot of people who aren't. Martin Luther King paid for what we got. He paid with his life, and I want to pay my dues, too."