HAVERHILL — They had seen it many times before on their TV sets, yet their eyes were still glued to the projection screen in Mayor James Fiorentini’s office yesterday.
It was like the women were watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech for the first time. The “I Have a Dream” speech, which happened 50 years ago yesterday, called for an end to racism.
With the mayor sitting next to them, the women watched and listened, their eyes filling with tears.
One of the women who gathered in Fiorentini’s office for the 50th anniversary of King’s speech talked about the trip she made to Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. She had decided to join the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered on the National Mall for the historic “March on Washington.”
“I was excited, but I was scared, too, as I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Irene Chretien of Haverhill said about her participation in the march, which has been called the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of the United States.
Chretien, 82, of Haverhill was working on the production line at Western Electric at the time. When she heard a group of people was heading to Washington, she decided to go as well.
“I’d never seen that many people in my life,” she said.
Fiorentini invited residents who took part in the march or wanted to talk about their experiences growing up at that time in America’s history to his office yesterday in celebration of the anniversary. The mayor presented Chretien with an “Outstanding Citizen Award” in recognition of her participation in the historic march and for her support of the rights of all Americans.
Fiorentini told the eight women in attendance yesterday that he regretted not going to Washington for that historic day. He said he was 16 at the time and was in high school. His parents did not want him to attend the march.
He asked the women if King’s dream has been fulfilled, and they answered in unison, “No.”
But they said great strides have been made in eliminating discrimination in America, although the nation still has a long way to go.
“The dream is still in progress,” said Julia DeVeaux of Haverhill. “Things have come a long way, and what it was then isn’t what it is now.”
No one who attended yesterday’s gathering had any inkling that it would become an opportunity to share their experiences growing up with segregation and racism they said was rampant in their youth.
Kalister Green-Byrd, 79, of Haverhill and her sister Mattie Mangrum, 65, of the Bronx, N.Y., talked about growing up in Decatur, Alabama, and attending all-black schools. They said train tracks separated the poor black community on one side of town from the wealthier white community on the other side.
“Our school books were hand-me-downs from the white schools,” Green-Byrd said. “Now I see my great nephews and nieces are able to get a quality education.”
Mangrum talked about “rule 110” and explained how this cultural concept called for black children to give 110 percent effort in everything they did to overcome discrimination.
And she talked about training for blacks who wanted to participate in non-violent civil rights demonstrations. She said the training mentally conditioned black people not to react to being spit on, called derogatory names or struck.
“As a teenager, I did not go to the training and did not participate in marches as I did not accept Dr. King’s non-violence philosophy,” she said. “I saw how black people were brutalized and I was not willing to be brutalized.
“But I did work on voter registration,” she said, noting that she was the first black person to be named to the board of registrars in her county.
Mangrum also said that in 1968, the all-black schools in her county closed and children were offered the choice of attending formerly all-white schools on the other side of town. She said the owner of a local bus and taxi company refused to transport black children to the white schools.
“I can remember what he told everyone,” Mangrum said, echoing a derogatory word commonly used back then to describe a black person.
She said that in response, poor black families scraped together enough money to buy a broken-down bus, and then fixed and repainted it.
“It went putt, putt, putt,” she said, reflecting on how the bus limped to and from schools on the other side of town.
Mangrum said many black women at the time rode that local company’s buses to get to the homes of white families to work as maids. When they heard about the bus company owner’s refusal to transport black children, they refused to ride his buses, she said, noting that their white employers decided to pick them up in their own cars.
“The (bus) company went out of business,” she said, adding that the owner eventually committed suicide.
Anna Mae Wright of Haverhill, who also attended yesterday’s event, talked about growing up in the Midwest and said she didn’t experience the kind of discrimination that others in the group talked about.
Chretien, who received the medal from the mayor, said she grew up in Andover at a time when there were just a few black families living there. At that time, racism was strong, she said.
“Andover was not that different from the South,” she said.
Chretien told The Eagle-Tribune it took a lot of courage on the part of the mayor to hold yesterday’s celebration and invite people such as herself to speak about their experiences with discrimination and racism.
“He really put his chin out to do this,” she said.
Fiorentini gave each woman a copy of a proclamation in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
In it, he noted that “the march capped off a summer of discontent, a time when the clarion call for civil rights was met with imprisonment, bomb threats, and base brutality. Many of the marchers had endured the smack of a billy club or the blast of a fire hose. Yet they chose to respond with nonviolent resistance, with a fierce dignity that stirred our nation’s conscience and paved the way for two major victories of the Civil Rights Movement — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”