BRADENTON – Rev. Willie Holley was a high school senior in Pompano Beach when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famed “I have a dream” speech in 1963. Things have changed in the half-century since then. “One of the ones that comes to mind right away was the prom night experience at the Howard Johnson restaurant,” he says. All dressed up in their finest clothes, the restaurant still refused to serve them. “We went to White Castle and got some hamburgers,” he remembers.
It was in the context of that kind of segregation that Dr. King stood before a nation and shared a dream that gave others belief. “One of the African-American leaders in my early years referred to him as the moses,” Holley remembers. “Moses had arrived.”
On August 28, 1963 a quarter of a million people followed, peacefully, not to the promised land, but to the idea that one day it might exist.
“I was amazed because there was a fear that this could turn into a violent situation,.” says Justus Doenecke, a professor emeritus of history at New College. “There was some real anxiety but the thing was very well monitored, and it became a matter of great uplift.”
How much uplift in fact have people felt in the half-century since the march on Washington? “Much of what Dr. King talked about, black kids and white kids walking hand in hand, you see that now,” says Holley. Fifty years later, people watched another black man stand on the same spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke as President of the United States. “We've made tremendous progress, but we've still got a long ways to go, when we talk about removing all these institutional barriers that prevent some from achieving that,” Holley says.
Zimmerman's acquittal after shooting Trayvon Martin to death sparked protests, and debates about racial prejudice. Some see recent laws in Florida and other states that restrict voting as new ways to suppress minority turnout. And the poverty that disproportionately affected black people in the 1960s still does.
“In some ways there has probably been a regression,” Doenecke says, “concerning income, concerning job opportunities, concerning the level of poverty, concerning disintegration of the family.”
But despite the challenges that remain, Rev. Holley hopes people will remember the sacrifices that people like King made, that he exhorted people to work for the equality they sought, and the way he inspired them to try. “He used to make us believe that we could do anything,” he says.