Two Gadsden men had a front row seat to the March on Washington and MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech when they hitchhiked their way to D.C. 50 years ago.
Robert Avery was 15 years old when he and his friend James Smith hitchhiked from Gadsden to Washington, D.C. to volunteer with the March on Washington. Source: WBRC video
James Smith was 17 when he and Robert Avery went to the March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech in person. Source: WBRC video
On Aug. 10, Highway 431 in Gadsden was dedicated as the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Parkway.
GADSDEN, AL (WBRC) -
Two Gadsden men had a front row seat to history 50 years ago this month: they worked behind the scenes at the March on Washington and heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech live.
James Smith was 17 and Robert Avery was 15 when the two hitchhiked from Gadsden to Washington along US Highway 11. Interstate 59 did not exist yet.
"Didn't wear any shoes out but we wore our thumb out," Avery recalled, laughing.
The two called Smith's mother in New York when they made it as far as Lexington, Virginia, before she wired them some money to finish the trip. By the time they arrived, they'd been put to work as "the office go-fers," for the organizers of what was officially known as the "March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom."
Their first job was to make the signs carried by the marchers.
"I would think that we probably touched every last one of those signs easily, either stapling them or hauling them out to the parade grounds," Avery recalled.
The two also gave numerous media interviews, since they were among the first to arrive. Avery even appeared on camera in a BBC-TV report.
As buses arrived with marchers, Avery and Smith met the one from their hometown of Gadsden.
"All of the people were there, you know, saying 'You guys are here already?' 'Yeah, you know, big shots,'" Smith recalled, laughing. The two appeared in an AP wire photo that went out to newspapers across the country, and they'd been seen in their hometown.
King met the two at the march headquarters in Washington one day after meeting Avery's parents in Gadsden. King had just come through the city on his way to the march.
The two remember the speech as spellbinding. They say the crowd murmured all through the rest of the speakers, but when King took the mike, "you could hear a pin drop."
"The man had a way with words, you know, he could put them together, and the common man could understand what he was saying," Smith recalled.
"I hear that speech now, I see it, and it still touches heart, you know," Smith continued. "And it just gets me right in there, you know."
"It just sends chill bumps up and down your spine when you hear it today, some 50 years later, it still has that same impact when you sit there and here that speech," Avery recalls.
Since that speech, Smith worked as a nurse in New York before retiring and returning to Gadsden. Avery, a longtime Goodyear employee, made history himself as the first African-American ever elected to Gadsden's City Council, a seat he still holds. Avery was also present when Barack Obama made history, attending the 2008 Democratic National Convention and both inaugurations.
But Avery says in plenty of areas--he mentions voting rights--"We've accomplished a lot of things. But...obviously, we still have a long way to go."
Avery was among those in attendance when Highway 431, also known as Meighan Boulevard, was dedicated as the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Parkway in Gadsden on August 10.