Ray Cox was barely out of the starting gate of life when the telephone rang in his parents’ home. It was August 1963 and the March on Washington was just a few days away. His mother answered. Someone from the church was calling to say there was an extra seat on the train headed to D.C.
His dad had to work, but having recently graduated from high school in Beaver Falls, Pa., the 18-year-old had no plans for the day. Pulling on his blue jeans and stretching his long arms into a khaki jacket with patches on the elbows, the eager young man boarded the train with a contingent from Pittsburgh.
“There was an aura of excitement, but anticipation, too. I don’t think anyone realized how many people were coming and the magnitude of the gathering.
“I can remember coming into D.C. We had to quickly get off the trains. They were taking the engines down to the roundhouse, turning them around and pushing those trains back out again so somebody else could come in,” said Cox, who moved to Canton shortly after the civil-rights march 50 years ago.
“New York coming in! Los Angeles coming in!” a conductor called as Cox and 150 members of his group exited the train.
At the march, in the sweltering heat, Cox and a buddy wormed their way through the crowd until they were just a few feet from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would give his historic I Have a Dream speech. Performers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Odetta and Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as various speakers, entertained the 250,000 who had gathered.
The event drew news coverage from Western Europe to Akron. A story inside the Beacon Journal reported that participants “sat cheerfully on the grassy mall under a balmy sky ...
“Hundreds took off their socks and shoes to cool their feet in the waters of the pool at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.
“Teenagers in matching jackets and caps chanted freedom songs — tirelessly swaying and clapping their hands. Oldsters stretched out for a rest, or chatted with new friends from every corner of the nation. A white boy held out a hard-boiled egg so a negro boy could crack his egg on it.”
On the same day that the primarily black marchers carried signs demanding freedom and guarantees for things like integrated education, voting rights and decent housing, real estate agents ran classified ads in the Beacon Journal that offered homes for sale in certain areas of the city to either “colored or white.”
On the front page the next day, a picture showed a sea of humanity peacefully pleading for freedom, jobs and the end of racism.
“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ ” King’s speech concluded.
Afterward, Cox headed home. He sensed that what he had witnessed was a huge moment, but he had no clue just how big.
A better life for others
Today the Rev. Ray Cox, 68, who worked at the Timken Co. for 37 years and is co-pastor with his wife, Mary, at Light of Christ Church in Canton, realizes that the march changed him in many ways.
“Having been a part of an event of that magnitude allows you to stay more in tune with those things happening around you,” Cox said. “I can’t say 100 percent how things would have turned out if I had not attended the march, but I do feel that my commitment to be involved and see what we can do to make a better life for others is greater.”
Sitting in his church — which also serves as the Community Drop-In Center, providing food, programs, clothing and encouragement to the community — Cox chatted about King’s speech and what still needs to be done to make the late civil-rights leader’s dream come true.
“We don’t have the massive mistreatments that we used to have in that era,” Cox said, noting that there was a time when African-Americans who traveled to the South were routinely prohibited from eating in a restaurant or using public restrooms.
“And they had to change their language to ‘yes sir, no sir,’ ” he said, sighing. “Grown men talking to other men.”
During King’s time, justice in the courtroom was often elusive for African-Americans, Cox offered. And that’s an area that still needs to be improved upon, he added, pointing to the Trayvon Martin case.
“We have accomplished a lot … but there still is so much to do. Until the heart is changed,” King’s dream won’t be realized, he believes.
“If we could only get to a child’s heart. A child’s innocence. We need to get to that point. Where we see a person as a person — not color,” Cox added. “If the change of heart comes, dialogue is open and you can work everything out.”
But how do you change a person’s heart?
There was no hesitation. The pastor raised his arm, pointed to the sky and answered.
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or email@example.com.