For Atlantic City's John Thomas, a World War II veteran, free college education for returning service members made the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom possible, by helping create a movement for social justice.
"I think the GI Bill was a catalyst for the civil rights movement, as well as helping a lot of people at that time," said Thomas, who got a degree from Rutgers University under the program and taught history in Newark high schools. "Hundreds of thousands of black men got to college. That had never happened before."
Thomas, who said he was the first black man to teach in a public high school in Newark, attended the historic march at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I Have A Dream" speech Aug. 28, 1963.
At 86, Thomas cannot travel to the nation's capital for the 50th anniversary of the march, which will be held Saturday.
"But we'll be there in spirit," said his daughter Pamela Fields, of Atlantic City. She is the executive director of Main Street Atlantic City.
Organizers expect about 100,000 people to participate in Saturday's march, which is being called the National Action to Realize the Dream March. At least 250,000 people participated in the 1963 event.
Local organizations are sending busloads of people. Among those organizations is Local 54 of UNITE-HERE, the casino workers union.
"The labor movement has long been a supporter of civil rights," said Ben Begleiter, Local 54 researcher and spokesman. "Our members recognize that an attack on civil rights is also an attack on labor rights."
He said labor unions have become more diverse and international in the past 50 years.
The primary organizers of Saturday's march are Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. and president of the group Realizing the Dream, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network.
The event is not just a commemoration but a continuation of the efforts that started 50 years ago, according to the National Action Network website.
Tremendous progress has been made in the U.S. by and for African Americans, but more needs to be done, said Kaleem Shabazz, president of the Masjid Muhammad mosque in Atlantic City and a member of the interfaith group Bridge of Faith. He cited the need to work on income and educational disparities, safe neighborhoods, fairness in the criminal justice system, and educating young African Americans about history and their right and responsibility to vote.
"Some people take the right to vote for granted," he said of low turnout rates, especially among the young, "while a short 50 years ago, people were fighting, dying and being beaten for the right to vote."
Shabazz cannot attend Saturday's march. He's helping prepare children for school, including his grandson, who is going to his alma mater, Rutgers.
So he and others are organizing an event Aug. 28 at City Council chambers, with speakers and excerpts from King's 1963 speech.
Egg Harbor City Councilman Cliff Mays said the U.S. is facing dire times for voting rights. He hopes Saturday's march will renew energy to protect people from becoming disenfranchised. At 79, he is not attending, but he is helping his Church of the Living God organize busloads of people to attend from all over New Jersey and the East Coast, he said.
Ralph Hunter, president of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey in Newtonville, Buena Vista Township, went to the march in 1963 with his father, he said.
"I had never seen that many black people at one time in all my life," Hunter said. "The estimate was 250,000, but it was probably well over 1 million."
He said his best memory of the day is taking pictures of all of the people there with his Polaroid camera.
"They were of every denomination, every ethnicity, joining hands," Hunter said.
He has the original invitation sent to his father by organizers, and it is among the memorabilia displayed in the exhibit "Fifty Years after the March on Washington," which opened Wednesday at the Newtonville museum and runs through Dec. 31. On the actual date of the 50th anniversary, the museum will host speakers who attended the 1963 march. That event will be held noon to 2 p.m. Aug. 28.
Hunter is not attending the 50th anniversary march.
"I was there 50 years ago. I was 25, and I'm 75 now," he said. "I can't make that trip and walk up and down and do those kinds of things anymore."
Elwood Davis, of Atlantic City, was treasurer of the Atlantic City NAACP in 1963 and helped organize three buses to take local residents to the march. He gave up his seat on one of those, believing he could arrange a fourth bus to go that day.
"The bus company ran out of buses," Davis said. "I was bumped. I didn't stop cussin' for three months."
Atlantic City's Thomas traveled to the original March on Washington in 1963 on a train with friends. His wife, Elizabeth, a nurse, drove down with co-workers.
"I remember standing up from Penn Station in Newark to Union Station in Washington D.C., it was so crowded," he said. "Most of the guys I went down with were veterans - educated veterans and professional men."
He said many people don't realize how many different ethnic groups, religious groups, interest groups and age groups participated, and how important the jobs issue was.
"It wasn't just a civil rights march or a black march," Thomas said. "It was a march for jobs and freedom, and you had all groups represented."
Thomas returned home and helped start the Crispus Attucks Parade in Newark, in honor of the black former slave thought to be the first to die in the American Revolution, at the Boston Massacre in 1770.
After King was murdered, the parade became the Attucks King Parade, and is now the 47-year-old African American Heritage Statewide Parade and Festival, he said.
Thomas later left teaching to work for U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg as his deputy director of constituent services. He moved to Atlantic City full time some years ago, after having a vacation home there for most of his adult life. His wife of 61 years, Elizabeth, died this past January.
Thomas was inspired to study history by his mom, a domestic worker who studied history with the Westfield Negro History Club. She could never afford college for herself or for her children, he said.
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