By Brittany Lyte
As a kid, Steve Simmons learned a lot about this country on summer road trips to Florida.
Things were done a whole lot differently in the South. Restaurants, hotels and water fountains marked with signs stating whether “colored” folks could use them were distressing to the youngster from Roslyn Heights, N.Y.
“I remember several times just crying over it,” said Simmons, whose childhood nanny was a South Carolina-bred black woman whom he loved. “I couldn’t understand how that was allowed.”
Simmons sometimes refused to eat on these family trips, choosing instead to wait in the car while his parents lunched at restaurants that would not serve black customers.
On this day 50 years ago, Simmons, who is white, boarded an early morning train at Pennsylvania Station in New York. Seventeen and alone with a homemade sign in tow, he traveled to the nation’s capital to participate in one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history.
An estimated quarter of a million Americans participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Labor that day. Simmons said he took part because he longed to be part of something meaningful, something that just might help change the things that had long perplexed him about American society.
On the train, there was talk that the march might ignite acts of violence. But Simmons wasn’t concerned about that.
“The people I saw were peaceful,” said Simmons, now a 67-year-old cable entrepreneur and education equality advocate living in Greenwich. “It was a great spirit of camaraderie. A great spirit of working together for this cause. There were people from all different states, all different parts of the country, and it was like we had all known each other for a long time and we were all joining hands in this.”
Marching beside a black minister, he joined the crowd in the singing of “We Shall Overcome.” Tears brimmed his eyes as he marched and sang the protest song in the mid-day August heat.
At the march’s end, Simmons stood beside a leafy tree. Shaded from the blaring sun, he watched as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech he called, “I Have a Dream.”
“God, what an oration,” recalled Simmons, seated Monday on a floral sofa in the living room of his Greenwich home. “He was almost preaching. He was preaching to the crowd and he was preaching to America and the Lincoln Memorial was kind of his pulpit.
“I don’t think I knew or anybody knew the impact it was going to have. I knew it was a great speech. A great speech. But I didn’t know it would go down as one of history’s greatest speeches ever.”
The day had a lasting impression on Simmons. It helped inspire him to devote part of his life to public service. It drove him to accept an internship working for Robert F. Kennedy, who was campaigning for a seat in the New York Senate.
He later worked on Hubert Humphrey’s campaign for president and went on to become a White House aide in President Jimmy Carter’s administration. He then became a successful cable entrepreneur. Today, he advocates for education equality as the chairman of theConnecticut Council for Education Reform.
Closing the education gap among minority students and white and Asian students is the civil rights issue of our time, Simmons said.
“I think to truly realize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, we all need to strive to improve education for all our children, and especially our minority children,” he said.
On Saturday, Simmons retraced his route 50 years ago back to the Lincoln Memorial — this time by airplane and with friend and Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., at his side — to participate in the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
While there, Simmons purchased a copy of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, printed on a scroll of yellowed paper.
“In these 50 years we have made tremendous progress,” Simmons said. “No longer do African-Americans have to work to find a hotel room. They can travel on public transportation. They can eat at any restaurant they want. And of course they cannot be segregated by race in public education. And if you look at any major corporation or law firm or sports team, you will see African-Americans in prominent positions. We have an African-American president. We have had in the last decade two black secretaries of state. So, again, these things were unthinkable 50 years ago. These things I just described would have been unthinkable in 1963.”
He added, “But we’re not done. When it comes to education, especially, we have far yet to go.”
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