Asheville Middle School’s boisterous student body took to the streets Wednesday afternoon to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, in which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have Dream” speech. The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders enthusiastically held up handmade signs and chanted “Let Freedom Ring!” as they headed up South French Broad Avenue toward Patton, where they pivoted and marched back to the school.
Although none were born in a time of segregated schools and buses, several students said they understood the importance of the 1963 rally held at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.‘s speech, so we can have equality,” said sixth-grader Zal Smith-Casey. Asked if he thought King’s “dream” of having a more equal society had come true, he said “yes.”
Fellow sixth-grader Phillip Menard agreed. “This represents Martin Luther King and his dream,” said Menard, marching alongside Smith-Casey up South French Broad.
Fifty years ago, an estimated 200,000 people attended the historic protest, where prominent civil rights leaders demanded more economic and racial equality in a then-segregated America. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech there, calling for a more racially unified country for future generations. The legacy of that event eventually helped lead to landmark legislation — the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and ‘65.
Before the middle schoolers began marching, Mayor Terry Bellamy gave a passionate speech describing what African Americans went through during the civil rights movement. “They stood for freedom, they stood for justice, the right to vote … the right to ride the bus and sit anywhere they wanted. … They did it together.”
Bellamy remarked that 50 years ago, there were no elected officials willing to stand up and do the right thing. She recalled seeing signs as a young girl that would prohibit blacks from restrooms and other areas.
“What you’re doing today will make a lasting impact for our community by saying, ‘We care,’” noted Bellamy. “You, sixth graders! You, seventh graders! You, eighth graders! You are living King’s dream today,” concluded Bellamy.
The mayor strolled alongside a group of students in the march, which also included AMS teachers, parent volunteers and police escorts.
AMS Principal Cynthia Sellinger encouraged students to shout out their dreams along the way. Some students held up signs demanding peace and equal pay for women, while another boy held up a sign that simply read: “H8trs gonna H8.”
Bellamy told students: “You’re living what he [King] saw. … He saw kids like you, no matter your skin color, getting a good education.”
Read the entirety of King’s speech at the National Archives online.