How joining MLK’s historic 1963 march spurred activist to move to Kentucky

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. waved to the crowd during the historic 1963 March on Washington.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. waved to the crowd during the historic 1963 March on Washington. Associated Press

If it were not for Martin Luther King Jr., I would never have come to Kentucky to work or live.

The connection began in the summer of 1963. From our home in Haddonfield, N.J., I called my father in Williamsport, Penn., to tell him I was planning to go to the March on Washington in August. To my surprise, he said he would also like to go. We agreed to ride down together in a chartered bus leaving from Williamsport.

As we rode, we discussed the possibility the demonstration might turn violent, considering the injustice experienced by blacks since the days of slavery.

Soon, after getting off the bus, such fears quickly left us. Buses came from all direction, unloading their passengers: black, white, Hispanic, American Indians, men, women, children. People came from the Bronx, Chicago and Atlanta. I especially remember the young people in their bibbed overalls from Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama, and the elders who never expected to see anything like that in their lifetimes.

There were banners identifying groups of marchers: AFL-CIO, auto workers, churches. Everyone seemed happy and expectant, sensing that this was going to be an historic occasion.

I had never seen a gathering of 250,000 persons before or so many African-Americans in one place. There was music and speakers, but the crowd never settled down until King began to speak. Then there was complete silence, interrupted only by applause and shouts of approval.

I can still recall the sound of his strong baritone voice describing the vision he saw for this nation. Then and there, I decided to do all that I could to help make that dream come true.

When I returned home and to my Presbyterian church, I set to work organizing an interracial Human Relations Council that actively pursued issues like fair housing and equal access to recreational facilities. Our church exchanged choirs and pastors with black churches.

During this time, I learned that the United Presbyterian Church, USA was recruiting ministers and elders to go to Mississippi in the Spring of 1964 and to reach out to southern ministers and to support blacks attempting to register to vote.

As chairman of the Church and Society Committee of the Presbytery, I put out the word. One other minster decided to go with me.

Upon arrival in Hattiesburg, a cab took us to an empty store in the black section of town. Cots were set up around the walls. A leader explained that we were to spend time each day walking back and forth in front of the courthouse to give moral support to blacks entering in an attempt to register to vote. As they arrived and we demonstrated on the sidewalk, men in pickup trucks drove slowly by and shouted obscenities.

At night, we attended rallies in churches in town and out in the country. I will never forget the testimonies of those who had lost their jobs simply for attempting to register, people whose lives were threatened, people thrown out of their homes — plain people, hard working, courageous, joyful. The singing was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

After our two-week assignments were up, we returned to New Jersey. Two months later, we learned that the bodies of three young men had been buried in an earthen dam in a county 100 mile north of Hattiesburg. They had been murdered for doing the same things we had tried to do.

I was more determined than ever to do all I could in the struggle for justice.  

After the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act in 1965, I encouraged the Human Relations Council to apply for a Community Action Agency grant. The state agency coordinating the War on Poverty decided they wanted larger, multi-county agencies. Because we were familiar with the application process, I was asked to organize an agency covering much of southern New Jersey.

Soon, our grant application was approved and we were underway. Our accomplishments came to the attention of Sargent Shriver’s Office of Economic Opportunity and during the summer of 1967, and I received a call inviting me to consider several Washington headquarter positions that were vacant. But after seeing the floor-after-floor cubicle environment in which I would be working, I was not interested. Later that summer, I was told a new program was being initiated that might interest me.

The Special Technical Assistance Program would hire 20 special assistants to be assigned to the 100 poorest counties in the United States. They were looking for someone to work in the Cumberland Valley Area of Eastern Kentucky, an area that included two of the 10 poorest counties.

After reading Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” I accepted the job. That Octobe,r I went to D.C., and, after a one-week orientation, arrived in a motel in Berea ready to go to work.

Four years later, the Nixon administration ended the Special Technical Assistance Program and I returned to New Jersey. In 1988, I retired and moved to a farm in Estill County. There, I helped organize and chair the Estill Development Alliance.

In 1996, as chair of EDA I was asked to lead a citizen’s organization intent on preventing Ashland Oil from depositing radioactive soil in the Estill County Landfill managed by Waste Management.

By determination, persistence and creative strategies, we were able to make these multimillion-dollar companies withdraw their plans.

This achievement may lend encouragement to the people in Madison and Estill Counties presently intent on preventing the fracking of Red Lick Valley. 

Robert W. Shaffer of Berea is a longtime civil-rights and anti-poverty activist.