SACRAMENTO – When 9-year-old Nigel Ramey was assigned to write a school essay for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, he didn’t have to rely on web sites and old magazine articles, he simply reached out to someone who was there as history unfolded.
He called his grandmother, Dr. Felicienne Ramey.
Dr. Ramey, the former dean of Sacramento State University’s College of Business Administration, was one of more than a quarter million people who attended the “March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom,” on August 28, 1963.
“When my children were in school, they’d say ‘you’re famous, you were at the March on Washington,’” Dr. Ramey shared with THE OBSERVER.
She and other Sacramento locals took a moment to reflect on their participation in the March, and how it impacted their lives, and the Black community, as the 50th anniversary of the gathering, and Dr. King’s notable “I Have a Dream” speech,drew near.
Commemorative activities are planned for the nation’s capital on Saturday, August 24, and at the California State Capitol on Wednesday, August 28.
Dr. Ramey, a native of Philadelphia, was in high school at the time of the original March on Washington. Her older siblings were planning to attend, but her mother did not want her, the youngest and only girl, to go. People didn’t know what to expect, they didn’t know if they’d be attacked by police dogs or arrested.
Despite her mother’s initial concern, she eventually changed her mind, allowing all of her children to take the train to the March.
“I was bound and determined to see this great man and hear what he had to say,” Dr. Ramey recalled.
“We got down there and my eyes just opened wide. I was in awe,” she said.
Dr. Ramey was a young member of the Congress of Racial Equality, better known by its acronym, (CORE), and no stranger to protest and civic and political activism.
She credits her involvement to her upbringing. Even though her family lived in a housing project, they had access to several Black professionals, including people like famed Pennsylvania lawyer A. Leon Higginbotham.
“Our young people living in low-income areas (today) have few role models,” she said.
“I had great Black teachers… My doctor was Black. He talked to me about going to college,” she stated.
She shared that her community really was like a village.
Dr. Ramey hesitates to say Blacks have become complacent in the years since the March.
“It gives the impression that none of us are doing anything, but we are,” she said.
She points to how her activism and commitment to the Black community has rubbed off on her own children and others in her family.
Her nephews, she said, attended the Million Man March, her son is a Navy pilot, who has tutored children in low-income areas and fights for Black students’ rights. And, her daughter is a professor doing research on slavery.
Both her children were active in the drive to get Barack Obama elected as the nation’s first Black president, something she couldn’t have fathomed back in 1963, she says.
“We must continue. We can’t let our guard down. We have to help others coming behind.”
Dr. Ramey words in 2013 are the same she says she and her friends spoke of as they headed home from the March in 1963.
“On the train back, we talked about what we could do and how we could help with the Dream.”
“We wanted to make it better for people coming after us,” she reflected.
Dr. Ramey certainly has.
DR. MARION WOODS
Helping others has also been a motivation for Dr. Marion Woods. He attended the March with several others from Sacramento.
In 1963, Dr. Woods had just been hired by the California Department of Employment as its Superintendent of Minority Employment. It was his job to get Blacks into jobs with the State of California.
Integration and breaking down barriers were in his blood.
His mother, Katherine Roberson Woods, he shared, was in the forefront of activism in his native Marietta, Georgia.
The March on Washington was special for Dr. Woods, because he siad, he got to attend alongside her.
“My mother was a pioneer, like Rosa Parks,” he shared.
Mrs. Woods, he recalled, did ceramics as a hobby. She would drive from Marietta to Atlanta to use the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA there. In 1965, Mother Woods decided to drive just two miles to the local YWCA in Marietta. She was told that Blacks weren’t allowed inside “unless they were the janitor.”
Mrs. Woods said, “’This is called the Young Women’s Christian Association. I’m not young, but I’m a woman and a Christian.’” her son recalled.
Ten years later, Mrs. Woods was president of the same YWCA that denied her entrance.
When the city wouldn’t let Blacks swim in the pools at their “Whites Only” recreation centers, she got them to build a facility for Blacks and went on to run that too, Dr. Woods said.
“She was a valiant woman,” he shared.
A young Woods and Martin Luther King, Jr. were schoolmates at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
“He was quite an orator at Morehouse,” Dr. Woods shared.
“We all tried to imitate Benjamin Mays (former president of Morehouse College). He (Martin) came the closest,” recalled Dr.Woods.
Woods was there when Dr. King was ordained at his father’s church, the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also witnessed first hand Dr. King speaking, as a young preacher, at a number of Southern Black universities and churches.
Just as important as the “I Have a Dream Speech,” but often overshadowed by it, Dr. Woods said, was a list of 10 demands that the organizers laid out during the March on Washington.
These concerns, Woods said, included withholding federal funds from programs that engaged in discrimination against Blacks, the desegregation of all schools, and setting a national living wage.
Back home, after the March, Dr. Woods said he was motivated to foster change. He worked to integrate local housing and create opportunities for African Americans. His efforts earned him the nickname of “The Bridge Builder.”
Dr. Woods says he wants to build on that reputation and help bridge the gap between his generation and younger African Americans. He doesn’t question whether or not progress has been made in the last half century, just whether or not that progress will be lasting.
“There are more Blacks incarcerated today than were enslaved in 1850. This March, 50 years later, has to be a reminder of things that have not been done and a continuation of that battle and that struggle,” he said.
Dr. Woods wanted to attend the anniversary March in D.C. but has had a change of plans.
Instead, he will participate in local activities, including a “Civil Rights 2.0” discussion at the Underground Books in Oak Park on August 27.
“I won’t call it a celebration, I will call it a reminder of what progress we’ve made and how far we still have to go,” he stated.
DR. EUGENE SPENCER
Dr. Eugene Spencer is a trailblazer. He has made his mark not only as one of the city’s most prominent dentists, but also as one of the city’s most influential leaders. Dr. Spencer was living in Washington D.C. at the time of the March on Washington. The Mississippi native had just graduated from dental school at the historically Black college, Howard University.
He recalls getting up at 4:00 a.m. to catch a city bus going to the event. He got to Pennsylvania Avenue at around 5:30 a.m., which afforded him a front row seat for Dr. King’s speech.
“I was close to the speaker’s stand. There were 200,000, maybe 250,000, people there and to look back and see all those people, that was just mind-boggling,” shared Dr. Spencer, who was 31 at the time.
Dr. Spencer had also been in the front row when Dr. King spoke at the Charter Day exercises on the Howard campus.
“He talked about the movement and how all of us should sacrifice to better conditions for our people,” Dr. Spencer recounted.
It wasn’t just living in the nation’s capital that motivated Dr. Spencer to attend the March. The murders of Mississippi teen Emmett Till, in 1955; and, his own friend, civil rights icon Medgar Evers, on June 12, 1963, drove him there. Dr. Spencer said he and Evers, who he said “ignited several civil rights demonstrations,” spent “many hours together at Alcorn State.”
“The injustices that were happening across the country, especially in the South, encouraged me to go to the March,” Dr. Spencer said.
He described the crowd as being “tense,” pointing out that at the time “people were getting assassinated regularly in the South, Blacks were not able to vote, and there was no Civil Rights Act.”
He was inspired , however, by the sheer number of people in attendance and how people, young and old, had come together in a peaceful/non-violent way.
Dr. Spencer left the March highly motivated to do something. Soon after, he and his wife relocated to Sacramento. Here, the couple could not find housing because of the color of their skin.
In Sacramento the young dentist immediately became active. Dr. Spencer joined with other professional African American men like Marion Woods and OBSERVER publisher, Dr. William H. Lee in founding the Sacramento Urban League. They built the organization, he shared, to bring about economic development, job training for youth and adults and to reverse the high local unemployment rate.
“I was so hyped up, I was also on the Board of directors for the local NAACP,” he added.
Dr. Spencer believes his generation was more organized and motivated to take action when things were wrong in the community than today’s generation.
“When there was discrimination, we’d go to the city council and speak on it,” he shared as an example.
He also pointed to the shooting of a child in Del Paso Heights by police… “We spoke on his behalf.”
The current generation of African Americans, he says, doesn’t seem to know the true history of, and need for, social activism.
“They’re not aware of their ancestors and the sacrifices they made,” he stated.
The work, Dr. Spencer says, is not over.
“Yes, we can ride buses anywhere in California, and even in the South. But, racism is just as prevalent today as it was back then,” he stated.
“Today, we believe that laws are going to protect us. Laws have made us think we have arrived, when we have not” he said.
“We have to take our plight in our own hands and that’s not being done,” Dr. Spencer stated.
By Genoa Barrow
OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer