On August 28 1955, Emmet Till, a 14-year-old African-American, was murdered in Mississippi by two White men. A 70-pound weight attached, his body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi.
On August 28, 1963, the eighth anniversary of this murder that sparked the Civil Rights Movement, another young African-American, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., led a historic “March on Washington”. Five years later, he too, would be murdered by another White man.
On August 28, 1988, the 25th anniversary of Dr. King’s historic march, dozens of people from Toronto, along with tens of thousands of Americans and other people from around the world were in Washington, D.C., to commemorate this anniversary.
The people who financed and organized our trip, one in a series of Toronto’s “Freedom Rides Against Apartheid” – to Montreal, Ottawa, Washington, D.C., etc. – were Charley and Hettie Roach. As our bus made its way through the Adirondack Mountains, their young daughter, Dawn, kept everyone in line, on time, fed and hydrated. On this trip, on the night before the march, we joined the congregation of a large and old African-American Baptist church.
Was it the first Baptist church?
The Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.?
Whichever, it was among the oldest Black churches formed by slaves and ex-slaves against segregation towards them practiced in White congregations.
There, we saw and heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who was then running against George H.W. Bush for the presidency of the U.S. On that occasion, Jesse said several things.
One was to correct the perception of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King, Rev. Jackson said, was not an idealist who was a dreamer, but a realist with high ideals. Jackson also challenged Bush to explain why, during his tenure as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the amount of illegal drugs smuggled into America increased, including some 400 per cent into Black communities.
On the bus to and from Washington, we sang freedom songs, Negro spirituals and conducted workshops on Black history, non-violence, anti-colonialism, anti-racism, etc. On one occasion, sitting beside him, Charley introduced me to the music of African-American artiste, Jackie “Moms” Mabley.
In particular, he told me of a cover version of “Abraham, Martin and John”, sung by Mabley. The song, written by Richard Hollier, is a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King, and John F. Kennedy, who were assassinated for their stance against slavery, civil rights, and segregation.
One verse of the song is:
Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good die young.
You know, I just looked around and he’s gone.
Recently, I’ve Googled this song and looked for it on YouTube, in order to introduce Moms Mabley to my grandchildren.
Thinking of Charley Roach, I changed some lyrics to:
Has anybody here seen our dear friend Charley? Can you tell us where he’s gone?
He did a lotta lovin’, but now he’s passin’ on.
We just looked around, an’ he’s gone.
Didn’t we love the things he stood for? Didn’t we love to see him smilin’?
I think I saw him marchin’ just over a hill,
With Sherona, Colin Kerr an’ Dudley Laws.