Prominent local attorney recalls march

Nolan Atkinson

For Nolan N. Atkinson Jr., the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was one of the most significant events in his life.

At the time, Atkinson was a 20-year-old student at Boston University, serving as the assistant regional vice president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. He was asked to join other fraternity officers in supporting the march. He flew from Boston to Washington, D.C. the morning of the event.

Atkinson joined about 250,000 citizens who headed to the nation’s capital for the historic occasion.

“This was a march unlike some other marches that everyone thought that they had to attend,” said Atkinson, who is a partner and chief diversity officer at Duane Morris, LLP.

“It wasn’t a march where just the radicals were going to be there or just the conservatives or whoever you wanted to identify. This was a march which had broad political support.”

Atkinson was too far away from the staging area to get a good vantage point, but he able to hear the numerous speakers. Atkinson recalls Aug. 28, 1963 as being a clear, sunny day.

“It was a hot day, but people had on shirts and ties. People looked like they were dressed for business. People had come and had a purpose,” he recalled.

The march featured an array of civil rights leaders, clergy, politicians and entertainers but as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, Atkinson said the march took on a “majestic” feel.

“People sort of listened to what he had to say, then you would hear him stop and there would be this sort of roar. You could hear the crowd applauding and saying, ‘Go ahead Martin’ or something like that. It became almost like you were in church,” he said.

“It was probably one of the most momentous events, even though its importance has increased with time for me because there hasn’t been other marches that have had that kind of symbolism, unity — that kind of majesty as the March on Washington.”

Atkinson refers to the march as the apex of the civil rights movement.

“I think it was the apex of everything Dr. King had fought for and it came at a time in history where there had been great suffering by African Americans and this was a necessary event to sought of begin to right things,” said Atkinson.

King’s “iconic “I Have a Dream” speech was a rallying call for racial justice and equality.

“Although the Civil Rights Bill did not get passed until the following year, that speech on television with millions of people watching it certainly lent moral authority to the argument that King had been making all along — that a Jim Crow society was something that had to end in this country. It was a very momentous time,” said Atkinson.

Atkinson honed in on the importance of African Americans uniting together to effect change as he reflected on the march’s upcoming 50th anniversary.

“The unity that Blacks had at that time was at the absolute highest level. Even though there wasn’t complete unity, there were folks who were ready to come together and make this work and I think that should be a reminder today — that we all have to rededicate ourselves to believing that there is a better society for people of color than what currently exists. If we maintain unity and if we work to bring about change in a rational kind of way, we can get change.

“I think that the march brought about change and that’s something that should continue to work for, to fight for and not give up in our beliefs that we can accomplish more in this struggle.”

The 50th anniversary comes as African Americans still face issues that were prevalent in 1963. For instance, African Americans are facing double digit 

unemployment. A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute indicates that the unemployment rate was five percent for whites and 10.9 percent for Blacks in 1963. Today, the unemployment rate is 6.6 percent for whites and 12.6 percent for Blacks.

The march demanded decent housing, adequate education and a federal jobs program.

“There were many issues that were on the table from the March on Washington like decent pay and the opportunity to work, that are still very relevant today. Jobs and freedom are points that we should all really be dedicating ourselves to. We can’t keep waiting 50 years to say we are going to do something,” Atkinson added.

 

Contact staff writer Ayana Jones at (215) 893-5747 or ajones@phillytrib.com.

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