It was half a century ago and some memories are dusty, but Shirley Hines clearly recalls getting on a bus in Boston with her parents and heading down to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place 50 years ago Wednesday. And she is there again for the anniversary celebration.
Just 13 back then, Hines is now a 63-year-old grandmother. “It was a long time ago but I remember when we took the bus from Boston looking down the highway and all you could see were buses, and then I would look behind me, and there were just buses and buses and buses,” says the retired special education teacher. “You didn’t see any cars on the road, just buses.”
The rally on the National Mall would become the defining civil rights gathering in the United States, sparking landmark civil rights legislation and featuring the singular “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
A young state representative from Brookline named Michael Dukakis was one of 20 Massachusetts leaders who signed a statement in support of the march, which read in part: “This historic demonstration represents a turning point in our nation’s development — the point at which we finally begin to honor our Constitution and moral heritage.” Dukakis would later go on to become governor and the Democratic nominee for president in 1988.
“How could one care deeply about the future of this country and not be appalled at the way we were continuing to treat people of color?” Dukakis, now a professor at Northeastern University, said Tuesday.
As a senior at Swarthmore College, Dukakis spent a semester at American University in Washington, D.C., in 1954.
“The nation’s capital was as segregated as Johannesburg, South Africa, and the schools were racially segregated by act of Congress,” he recalled. “People of color couldn’t live in the town of Brookline. It wasn’t difficult to sign that statement” supporting the march.
Hines and her parents, Julian and Inez Himes, couldn’t see King at the march, but they clearly heard his speech, which still gives her chills. “Every time I hear it, I feel like I’m back there,” says Shirley Himes Hines, who married her college sweetheart, Robert Hines, in 1979.
“There was so much excitement on the bus,” she says. “I remember the feeling of joy and happiness at that moment. I remember the singing, the laughter, and the gaiety, and being overwhelmed by the huge crowd at the National Mall. I did not truly realize the significance of that day until I was older.”
Shirley and Robert Hines left Friday to meet their son, Rashaan, a construction engineer who lives in Manassas, Va., and their grandson Tyler, on the National Mall on Saturday. They planned to stay through the festivities Wednesday.
“I’m just elated that we have the opportunity to get there,” she said from her home in Petersburg, Va. The anniversary march will feature the same path from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his speech and where President Obama will address the crowd. Veterans of the 1963 march are to lead the others.
Shirley’s father, who will be 95 in October and has dementia, will not be among them, though Hines would love to take him. “He cannot walk the distance and we would have to get him a wheelchair,” she says.
Her mother died in 1997, and her father lives with her and her husband. After graduating in 1967 from Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester, Shirley Himes enrolled at Virginia State College in Petersburg, and stayed on after finishing.
She grew up well aware of the racial tensions that plagued the country. In her 13 years in the Boston public schools, all of her teachers except two were white, while the majority of students were black. “We were told that we should be grateful that our teachers came in from the suburbs to teach us because no one else would,” she says.
Her parents were civil rights activists and with them, she and her brother participated in marches and protests, including a boycott of a Woolworth’s in Dudley Station that would not serve blacks.
They allowed her to participate in “Freedom Stay Out” in February 1964, a day in which nearly a quarter of Boston public school students skipped classes and flocked to 34 “Freedom Schools” — many in churches — set up for the day by civil rights leaders. The boycott was aimed at highlighting school segregation.
“Choirs came up from the South, and ministers and civil rights dignitaries,” says Hines. “We learned what was happening with African-Americans in the South then, with people being beaten and hosed down. We watched it on TV. It was extremely scary.”
Hines also witnessed the Roxbury riots in June 1967. Three days of rioting broke out on June 2, following a sit-in by the Mothers for Adequate Welfare at the Grove Hall welfare office on Blue Hill Avenue. Hines was 17, and had been sent to the store for bread.
“We lived on Supple Road right off Blue Hill Avenue,” she says. “I saw a policeman beating a pregnant black woman. Then crowds of people came up, and, all of a sudden, rocks started flying and that was the beginning of the riot.”
When she failed to return home from the store, her brother went looking for her. When he failed to return, their parents went out and brought them back home.
“My parents instilled in me that I had the same rights as any other human being on the face of this earth,” she says. Her parents both earned master’s degrees in social work from Boston University. Julian Himes retired as a deputy sheriff with Suffolk Superior Court; Inez was a social worker for needy children.
Their son Eric, a paratrooper with the 82d Airborne in Vietnam who died from an Agent Orange-related cancer in 1987, was six years older than Shirley. (He was in the military in 1963 and did not accompany the family to Washington.)
Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement was in its infancy. News stories on the march referred to “negroes.” The round-trip bus fare for the event from Boston was $15.
Archie Epps, a Harvard graduate student — who later became dean of students, one of the college’s first black administrators — was the New England coordinator. He died in 2003.
The march paved the way for the passage of two pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A conservative majority of the Supreme Court recently struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, and last week, the Pew Research Center released a survey showing that fewer than half of Americans say the country has made substantial progress toward racial equality. The center’s analysis of government data also found that the economic gulf between blacks and whites that existed 50 years ago remains.
Such results would not surprise Shirley Hines, who took to heart her parents’ advice to stay involved in the fight for equality. Among other causes, she volunteered in both of Obama’s presidential campaigns.
“I’ve knocked on a lot of doors and got a lot of people interested and registered,” she says. “I worked to get ex-felons’ voting rights restored.”
Though she wishes her mother had lived to see the first African-American president, Hines feels that Obama has been openly disrespected in ways that other presidents have not: “There are people who feel free to say ugly things, which did not happen before.”
Hines returns regularly to the Boston area, where she has uncles and cousins, and recently she vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, where she spotted Obama’s motorcade. She hopes she has passed along her parents’ lessons to her own children: Rashaan, 32, and daughter Piya, 30.
“Of course I’ve told them about being at the march, and they themselves have gone to several marches,” says Hines. These days, she loves singing the anthems of the civil rights movement to her 3-year-old grandson, including “This Little Light of Mine.”
“That’s his favorite,” she says.