'Our nation has a date with destiny'
Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.
RICHMOND, Va. — A bitter, cold night in Richmond was a prelude to a majestic moment in Washington 50 years ago that played out beneath the solemn gaze of Abraham Lincoln and the nearby white marble and granite halls of justice and democracy.
Recognized at first by the media more for its mass than its message, the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington occurred on a sweltering day that drew hundreds of thousands to a place that once had bordered a swamp called Foggy Bottom.
There were lots of people there that day who wanted a life out of the swamp of segregation.
One of them was Carroll Denis Bartholomew Jr., a newcomer to Richmond who at 19 was just beginning his journey into adulthood and segregation.
An Army brat, Bartholomew traveled the world growing up and spent his senior year of high school at Armstrong in the city’s East End.
He was about 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed maybe 150 pounds. He was a running back for the football team and marveled at the size and ability of future pro Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier, who played then for rival Maggie L. Walker.
But Bartholomew was in a new world.
“It was very strange for me because it was the first time I had ever gone to a school that was all black,” said Bartholomew, who had lived in France, Japan and Alaska. But he had heard his dad speak of the brotherhood that existed among black soldiers in the segregated Army, men who were trained by white officers.
Bartholomew joined the segregation fight, a bit player in a huge struggle but, like thousands upon thousands of others, someone who can look back now with simple satisfaction that he cared and contributed.
There had been preludes of injustice in Virginia — decades of preludes. Lynchings, sit-ins, white rule, broken families, poll taxes, literacy tests, segregation, police brutality, color barriers, and schools that shut down in places as disparate as Charlottesville and Prince Edward County, Front Royal and Surry County.
There were preludes of resistance, too, before the great march. One of those occurred in Richmond on that bitterly cold night, on Jan. 1, 1960.
A stirring voice awakened a full house of some 2,500 people gathered at the Mosque, now called the Landmark Theater. Elvis had performed there. Sinatra had been there. It was where things of import happened in Richmond a half-century ago.
The Mosque, which mandated segregated seating for public events, that night played host to something called the “Pilgrimage of Prayer for Public Schools.”
“We’d rented it out,” civil rights leader and former Petersburg pastor Dr. Wyatt T. Walker said of the minaret-studded entertainment hall near Monroe Park. “People sat where they liked.”
The main speaker said this: “The hour is late, the clock is ticking and our nation has a date with destiny. We will wear the opposition down with our capacity to suffer,” he said.
“I hope you will not sell your birthright of freedom for a mess of segregated pottage,” he said, addressing people affected by the shutdown of public schools in Prince Edward County months earlier.
“I hope (you) will continue to have the power of endurance.”
He summoned up an image of the American dream, reciting lines from the Declaration of Independence. “We’re moving up the highway of freedom to the city of equality,” he said.
The speaker was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
When the speech ended, more than 1,500 people marched 17 blocks to the steps of the Virginia State Capitol.
Walker read a list of demands in a freezing rain that dealt with the injustice of closed schools. A list of demands would punctuate the speeches at the Lincoln Memorial.
But in January 1960 in Richmond, passage of the Civil Rights Act that made it illegal to discriminate based on race or sex was still four years away; the marches on Selma in Alabama were five years away. The March on Washington was three years away.
And the hope-crushing assassination of King would come April 4, 1968, setting off a maelstrom of angry violence.
Walker, King’s chief of staff and, like his mentor, born in 1929, recalled this week the thrill of success at that Richmond rally.
“It was the largest demonstration we were able to create up to that time in the South in the fight against the school closings,” he said.
Carroll Denis Bartholomew Jr. was not at the Mosque that cold first night of 1960.
He was in Japan, and three years later his father would travel to Richmond from the West Coast, hauling his family across the country and stopping each night where the American Automobile Association guidebooks suggested.
“I remember him telling me when we stopped for gas to not get out of the car until he’d checked the place out to see if we could use the restrooms and eat or not,” he said. “Triple A back then published the addresses and numbers of homes of black families who would take you in and feed you.
“So that’s what we did, that’s where we stayed.”
In Richmond, another sort of camaraderie existed among blacks, especially high schoolers like Bartholomew and college kids growing up in the face of segregation. Richmond’s blacks and a handful of whites engaged in a form of protest that fit hand and glove with King’s notion of civil disobedience.
Sit-ins at white-only lunchrooms and diners and at the city’s fanciest department stores became the rage; dozens of restaurants opened their doors to all rather than maintain segregationist policies. Some, like Bob’s Seafood Grill, an institution for three decades on North Fifth Street, shut down and was eulogized at length on the editorial pages of the city’s daily newspapers.
The most celebrated sit-in effort had come at Thalhimers in February 1960 when 54 Virginia Union University students were arrested for trespassing at the iconic Richmond Room there. The effort came just days after the historic civil disobedience actions in Greensboro, N.C., at Woolworth’s.
“There was a tremendous sense of what was going on across the country, a sense of being part of something that was going to change the lives of many, many people,” Bartholomew said of the civil rights movement and his own recognition of his race and its troubled past.
“In Richmond, it was much different than other places where there was more violence, but we had a sense that we were part of something bigger and more important than ourselves.”
Local NAACP leaders and volunteers did the training. “They showed us how we could curl up in a ball to peacefully resist arrest. But most important of all, they taught us to maintain control no matter what happened. They told us never to fight back; stay peaceful. They really emphasized that.”
“My big day came on Aug. 16, 1963. We were told that we would be doing a sit-in and to get ready. My mother was out of town, and I didn’t say anything to my father,” Bartholomew said.
The word came that news of the sit-in might have leaked out. “We went early, seven of us, and we all got arrested.”
The target was Julia’s Restaurant in the 300 block of North Fifth Street, near the Greyhound bus station then and Miller & Rhoads department store. The same restaurant had been targeted by seven protesters the day of the Prince Edward rally at the Mosque.
“There were no problems, but they refused to serve us. A lot of the customers would bump up against us trying to start something, but we had been trained well enough to know to just do nothing,” said Bartholomew. He called his father from the lockup, a cold, mattress-less place where he would spend the night.
“You what?!,” said his father, a retired major. “You should have told me.”
The next day, a Saturday, Bartholomew and his friends were convicted in police court.
The NAACP paid the fine, $25, and 11 days later Bartholomew was on the way to Washington, a witness and participant in an event that has stayed wedged in his memory for a half-century.
“Bumper-to-bumper school buses on Interstate 95,” he said. “It’s boiling hot and the windows are down, but nobody cares and everyone is singing the songs: ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ‘This Land Is Your Land.’
“And so many people, more people than I had ever seen before in one place. When I got up on the high ground by the Washington Monument, it was just people for as far as you could see.”
He had graduated that year from Armstrong and in the fall left for college in Tennessee, only to be drafted by lottery into the military before he reached his senior year. Soon he was in Vietnam, an infantryman with the First Cavalry.
On Aug. 7, 1967, nearly three years to the day after he was arrested in Richmond for trespassing, shrapnel from a mortar round ripped into Bartholomew’s side. He received the Purple Heart for his valor.
He would spend his career in the military, retiring a sergeant first class after a stint in Roanoke as a recruitment officer.
As he tells this story, adding some details of the divorce that came, of the passing of his parents, of the PTSD that still can drive him to periods of detached sadness and loneliness, Bartholomew’s voice cracks and struggles. He is 69 years old now.
But he views his life as having been graced by two treasured touchstones.
“I think about it and I see myself as having been part of something larger than myself, as someone who played a small role in something that many others were part of and sacrificed so much for. That was to make this a better country.
“And I see myself serving that country, sworn to protect it from invasion, and I did my part in that as well. It was just a small part, but at least I was part of it.”
A few of the other seven young people arrested that day at Julia’s have passed away, but Bartholomew said he still keeps in touch with one of the young women who was part of the action and who moved off to another state.
“We talked just a few days ago,” he said. “I guess we get to this time of year and the memories of it sort of come back, but as the years pass we really don’t bring up the march so much as just wanting to know how we are doing.”
Bartholomew’s ride to Washington was as awe-inspiring as his trips on Richmond public transportation were puzzling. After football practice, he would ride the Robinson 3 bus west on Grace Street past the famous department stores that were so finicky about black customers. It was late in the day so Bartholomew didn’t bother about moving to the back of the bus.
“I remember how my mother wasn’t allowed to try on the clothes,” he said of the department store policies then. “They’d watch you to make sure you weren’t trying to shoplift something.”
But prior to the big rivalry between Walker and Armstrong on the football field, display windows at Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads were ablaze with the colors of the two teams.
“It was a big welcome but not really,” he said.
“You had to be careful how you acted on the streetcars; the conductors had police powers,” said Dr. William Ferguson Reid, the first black elected — in 1968 — to the Virginia General Assembly in the 20th century. He founded the Richmond Crusade for Voters in 1956, which cultivated blacks for appointment to city commissions and other positions that would then lead them to elected office.
Those accomplishments of Reid’s occurred even in the face of hospitals’ discriminatory admission practices for doctors that kept the surgeon, the son of a dentist, from fully involving himself in his trade.
Sometimes, even after gaining entrance into formerly white-only hospitals, Reid would be rejected by a white patient. “You just learned to accept that,” he said.
The sit-ins and election strategies and push to enroll black voters came in the context of powerful forces across the years in Richmond: Road projects and urban renewal in the 1950s displaced thousands of poor families. The famous 1954 Brown decision from the U.S. Supreme Court designed to end public school segregation helped spark white flight from Richmond, even as the state’s years-long, politically intricate policy of Massive Resistance took hold and finally failed.
In 1950, the city’s population was 230,310, about 73,000 of whom were black. School enrollment of 30,423 students consisted of nearly 18,000 whites. In 2012, the population, which is slowly climbing after hovering for the past decade around 200,000, was 210,300. The school population of 23,649 students included 3,254 white students.
It was the 1963 March on Washington that added an impetus to push the equality agenda, that represented an opportunity to show the power and restraint of the civil rights movement.
As the event approached, the atmosphere was swirling with uncertainty.
U.S. Sen. A. Willis Robertson, D-Va., the father of evangelist Pat Robertson, warned that communists were eyeing the civil rights battles to come as fertile ground for furthering their cause. Charles Bartlett, a syndicated columnist in Washington, pondered likely outcomes ranging from traffic jams to violence.
“This uncertainty is marked by the plan to keep troops outside of Washington on alert,” he wrote reassuringly.
Richmond’s two daily newspapers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Richmond News Leader, presented a stark image of segregation’s hold.
A want ad for teachers for an unnamed Richmond high school specified that the teachers being sought should be white; prolific use of the word “Negro” supplanted the once-prolific use of the word “colored.”
In the 156-page Sunday Times-Dispatch that appeared Aug. 25, 1963, pictures of 25 brides, all white, appeared in the bridal pages along with dozens of pictures of white models, government officials and others. The only images of blacks were four drawings in an advertisement for soul singer James Brown’s show coming to the Mosque on Sept. 6; there were four photos of black baseball players and seven of black patients standing in the emergency room of St. Phillips Hospital, then part of the Medical College of Virginia.
A similar but reverse imbalance existed among the pages of the Richmond Afro-American newspaper.
Political advances then were incremental. Only three blacks had been elected to the Richmond City Council in the 20th century by the late 1960s, including the 1948 election of civil rights icon Oliver Hill.
“Change came slowly,” said Reid, the Crusade for Voters founder who tried to work within the political system to bring change.
The march received wide coverage in both Richmond papers and, like many newspapers across the country, King’s speech was barely mentioned. Reporters noted that his speech drew the largest applause, yet King was mentioned in only two paragraphs in both of Richmond’s daily newspapers. The news of the day was more the size of the crowd and the lack of violence.
But few assessments of the march’s impact would be more off the mark than that of a Times-Dispatch editorial Aug. 29, the day after the immense and long-planned demonstration.
“One benefit that may have derived from the ‘march’ is that preparation for it occupied Negro groups in many cities completely for several weeks, and this may have kept them from stirring up trouble in those areas.
“In other words, the ‘march’ could have served as a safety valve during a more than ordinarily tense summer. As such, it was useful.”
King’s words, rather, still shine as a beacon of hope, whether inscribed on monuments of cities across the country or in the minds of people like Carroll Bartholomew Jr. in Richmond.
“When he was killed, I think the violence that followed was an outpouring of lost hope and frustration,” he said. “It was like all the people who had given so much, who had followed his message for all those years … it was like an emptiness there and a feeling of despair.”