Vermonters Follow in the Footsteps of Original MLK Marcher Richard Kemp | Off Message

Vermonters Follow in the Footsteps of Original MLK Marcher Richard Kemp


At least 50 Vermonters will be in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to take part in a mass march remembering and updating the historic protest held at the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago.

Richard Kemp, 80, won't be part of the throng converging on the nation's capital this weekend to demand racial justice. He's been there, done that.

Kemp participated in the August 28, 1963, March on Washington with his wife and their six young children. They journeyed to D.C. by bus from Peekskill, N.Y., where Kemp was working for IBM.

Still an activist, Kemp recalls feeling "elevated, uplifted" for being part of what a book reviewer in last Sunday's New York Times described as "the most famous mass gathering in American history."

The march is now most closely associated with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech." But standing far from the memorial with more than 200,000 demonstrators, Kemp could barely hear King on that afternoon half a century ago. "It wasn't until the next day or two that I read what he'd said," Kemp recounts in an interview at his Burlington apartment.

The March on Washington can be seen as "a turning point because of the vast numbers of people and the attention they got from the press," he says. "The country had to think what to do about the concerns we were bringing forward."

Kemp settled in Vermont after being transferred to IBM's Essex plant in the early 1970s. "In general," he finds, "there is racial equality in Vermont — which is not to say there's no problems." The major race-related issue facing the country as a whole, in Kemp's view, involves the disproportionate number of African Americans serving prison sentences. "It's insidious and sad," he says. "We as a society have to stop that kind of discrimination."

That will be among the grievances lodged by Vermonters heading to Washington via bus and van.

Ebony Nyoni was born 13 years after the original march, but she'll be taking part in the anniversary event because, she explains, "I'm a student of history." A University of Vermont alum raised in New York City, Nyoni says her parents taught her about the 1960s civil rights movement and its continuing relevance. In fact, Nyoni's mother will be one of the 30-plus riders on the Burlington-D.C. bus that her daughter organized on behalf of the Vermont Change Committee.

Following the verdict in the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case, Nyoni says, "I felt a strong need to rally Vermonters and to have Vermont presence at this march." But it's not only that unpunished killing of an African-American boy in Florida that motivates her. It's also the "incidents" that Nyoni says occur in Vermont, especially in schools.

"There's been progress," she observes, "but a lot still has to happen to bring it to equal levels."

Mari Cordes, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals, says she'll be proud to march on Saturday as leader of a union that received the Bayard Rustin Human Rights Award last year for its work in Haiti. Rustin, a gay African-American socialist and union member, was the lead organizer of the 1963 march.

She's also inspired to march, Cordes says, because "it's very important for a white person in a leadership position to help other white folks realize racism is alive even in a progressive state like Vermont." The racism experienced by black Vermonters may go unrecognized by "white people who have never experienced any kind of -ism," Cordes suggests.

Two vans carrying members of the nurses' union and the American Federation of Teachers will travel to Washington from Vermont on Friday morning. The Change Committee's bus leaves from the Unitarian Universalist Church at the top of College Street at 7 p.m. on Friday and returns early on Sunday. For information, call the Peace & Justice Center at 802-863-2345.



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