WASHINGTON — As Omaha NAACP leaders toured the U.S. Capitol building on Friday, they passed reminders of both the nation's darkest days for African-Americans and of the civil rights movement's greatest triumphs.
They passed the old Supreme Court chamber where the justices handed down the 1857 Dred Scott decision that found even free African Americans could not be considered U.S. citizens, a ruling that helped spark the Civil War.
They also visited the statues of Frederick Douglass, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks.
A smile broke out on Angel Martin's face when the group reached Parks, the black woman whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955 gave an important burst of momentum to the fledgling civil rights movement.
“Now we can sit anywhere on the bus. We can drive the bus,” Martin said as she looked at the statue. “Fifty years later we did it. We're in the White House now.”
Nebraskans and Iowans made the trip out to Washington this week to help mark the 50th anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
It was a landmark event in the civil rights struggle that featured King's famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Martin, who teaches communication and public speaking at Iowa Western Community College, recently had her students read that speech aloud in class.
There is a full slate of events scheduled over the coming week, including two major marches, to commemorate the anniversary.
Today's gathering and march will feature speeches by figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III.
Many of those who made the trip stressed a dual purpose to observing this anniversary. They said they want to celebrate the progress that has been made, while highlighting work left to be done, even with a black man sitting in the Oval Office.
Martin cited specific problems confronting those in Omaha, including poverty and a criminal justice system overpopulated with black men.
“The fight is not over,” Martin said. “We must advocate for the voiceless and continue to speak up for those that are not as capable of doing that.”
A recent report released by the African-American Empowerment Network on the state of affairs for African-Americans in Omaha pointed to progress in areas such as the creation of summer jobs, improving graduation rates and emerging new businesses.
But it also cited an unemployment rate among black Omahans several times higher than the city-wide average. African-American graduation rates and home ownership in Omaha also continue to be well below city averages.
The world is certainly a better place than it was 50 years ago, said Arnold Woods Jr., president of the NAACP Iowa and Nebraska State Conference.
But Woods, 65, of Des Moines, said that in many ways discrimination has simply become less blatant, noting current efforts to suppress African-Americans' voting rights.
“We don't have the overt Jim Crow,” Woods said. “But we certainly have the James Crow, Esquire.”
At the time of the 1963 march, Woods was a 15-year-old boy growing up in Carbondale, Ill. He said a couple of restaurants in town would not allow black people to enter back then.
His father called the family into the living room on the day of the march to watch the happenings in Washington on their black-and-white television.
“That was the first time I saw my father cry,” Woods said.
Among the Omaha NAACP leaders, none had been born when the march took place.
Branch President Vickie Young said that for a long time the event was something she had just read about in history books.
Young and a couple of other Omaha leaders brought their children on the trip.
“It's an historical moment,” Young said. “I think that it's going to be a hands-on opportunity for the kids to learn about their past and what they can do and taking that information and using it to influence their future (so) they can have the positive impact on the things they take part in.”
Eugenia Dortch, who was born the month after the march, brought her 12-year-old daughter.
“It was just the perfect opportunity, not only for us baby boomers who came along during that time, but then also for our children to really get a grasp of what this meant in our history,” she said.