Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: HeraldMail HomeCollectionsLaws

James Tolbert

August 24, 2013|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthewu@herald-mail.com
  • James Tolbert reflects on the 1963 March on Washington where he witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speech.
By Kevin G. Gilbert / Staff Photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — It was not just another march on that hot August day on the mall in the nation’s capital, but James Tolbert had no way of knowing ahead of time how that march, and the speech of one man, would go down in history.

Tolbert, of Charles Town, W.Va., and his friend, George Lewis, were not aware they were stepping into history when they boarded a train in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., bound for Washington D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963.

Tolbert and Lewis, who since has died, were among the thousands of people who took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the landmark rally that culminated in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It was there that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“We felt it was our duty to go and demonstrate our concern about segregation and unequal education and employment opportunities for blacks,” said Tolbert, now 80.

At that time, schools still were segregated in Jefferson County, said Tolbert, who has been a leading figure in the civil-rights movement in West Virginia for more than 50 years.

The throng of humanity that gathered on the mall that day was something Tolbert had never seen before.

“I remember being down on the lefthand side, back under the trees,” Tolbert said. “It wasn’t so bad because it was mostly shaded.”

Despite the heat, men were wearing suits and neckties, Tolbert recalled.

“Everybody was looking forward to the speaking,” said Tolbert, who recalled gospel singer Mahalia Jackson singing at the rally.

“I had no idea that I was participating in such a historical event,” Tolbert said.

He said the events of that day are credited with helping gain passage of the Voting Rights Act and for other advancements in civil rights.

The following year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women.

In 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited states and local governments from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure” that would deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote based on race or color.

Tolbert said while he believes conditions are better now than they were 50 years ago, there still are problems to solve. For instance, he said, issues such as voter identification and stand-your-ground laws, and the number of blacks in prison face the country.

“There were already enough laws on the books to take care of self-defense in your home,” said Tolbert, who said he believes the stand-your-ground law has been “completely twisted around.”

Tolbert said the achievement gap and a need for more minority teachers in education are among other issues that need to be addressed.

Part of the challenge going forward is that younger people who didn’t experience segregation might not recognize how issues such as newly adopted voter-identification laws could lead to the kinds of major problems blacks faced with voting years ago, Tolbert said.

“There’s still plenty of unfinished business,” Tolbert said.

Advertisement
The Herald-Mail Articles
|
|
|