In August 1963, people traveled far and wide to Washington DC to advocate for civil rights. They took planes, trains, and automobiles. However, one man traveled there in a different way. To commemorate the 59th anniversary of the March on...
In this episode, you will hear:
Notable figures mentioned in this episode:
Martin Luther King Jr.
A. Phillip Randolph
President John F. Kennedy
Attorney General Robert Kennedy
President Barack Obama
The Black Is America podcast, a presentation of OWLS Education, was created and is written, researched, and produced by me, Dominic Lawson.
Executive Producer Kenda Lawson
Cover art was created by Alexandria Eddings of Art Life Connections. Credit for this episode's cover art: The Baltimore Afro American
Sources to create this episode come from The National Civil Rights Museum, History.com, The New York Times, The Baltimore Afro American, The National Museum of African American History & Culture, WAMU National Public Radio in DC
Scenes from United Skates are courtesy of Vice and HBO Documentary Films, a Warner Brothers Discovery Company.
Mamie Chalmers audio courtesy of Comcast NBCUniversal's Voices of the Civil Rights Movement
David Vann and A.G. Gaston audio courtesy of the Youtube Channel curated by Geoff Hiron (Note: The host could not locate the original source of audio)
"Beat It" is written and performed by Michael Jackson and produced by Michael Jackson & Quincy Jones for Epic Records.
"I'm On My Way" performed by Mamie Brown & Choir from "Lest We Forget, Vol. 2: Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 - Mass Meeting" from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Audio of Martin Luther King Jr. courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr Research and Education Institute at Stanford University
Audio of John Lewis courtesy of the National Archives
Audio of President Barack Obama courtesy of BBC News
Be sure to Like, review and subscribe to the Black Is America Podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, where ever you like to listen to podcasts. Also, let people know about the podcast. We would appreciate that very much.
For a full transcript of this episode and other resources, go to www.blackisamericapodcast.com. You can read our blog, leave us a review, or leave a voicemail where you can ask a question or let us know what you think about the show we may play in an episode. You can also hit the donation button if you like what you heard, which helps us to create more educational content like this.
Dominic Lawson (00:02):
It's August 17th, 1963 in downtown Chicago. It's a pretty nice Saturday morning as many are probably unwinding from a long and hard work week. But also on this Saturday are those that are preparing to travel. See, there is this big gathering that is happening in Washington, DC to advocate for civil rights. There are going to be some great speakers in attendance, a future Congressman, a woman deemed the voice of the century will sing. Now, where have I heard that before? And even this southern preacher from the state of Georgia that everybody keeps talking about. Some are taking the train to the event, others are taking the bus or they're packing up the car for a 23 hour ride. A select few are actually flying into DC for this historic event.
But let's head over to 431 Dearborn Street. For proper context today, this address sits near Harold Washington Library Center, named after Chicago's first African American mayor. Also, fun fact, I helped him get elected. I mean, I was a toddler stuffing envelopes but, hey, I helped. My bad, I'm getting off task again. Anyways.
Now 431 Dearborn Street is home to a branch office of the national association for the advancement of color people, or NAACP. But as we head over, there's an interesting site in front of the office. There's a man on roller skates. Now remember the planes, trains, and automobiles as modes of transportation for the people I mentioned earlier? Well, this gentleman, or Ledger "Roller Man" Smith, is heading there on, well, roller skates. Yeah, you heard that right, roller skates. He has a sign across his chest that says freedom and he is raring to go. And just to be safe, officials from the NAACP are going to escort him just in case there's some trouble. And as Ledger Smith starts his 10 day journey heading down Lake Shore Drive on his way towards east Chicago, Indiana, he points out to the country and to the world that there are many paths to freedom.
We come from innovators, heroes, and royalty. We are our ancestors' greatest hope. We face many challenges but we mold that adversity into our greatest strength. We are the glue that holds a nation together and allows it to flourish. Welcome to Black is America, the podcast that highlights little known African American figures and stories that make our history come to life. I'm your host, Dominic Lawson. Episode seven, Ledger Smith, Rolling Towards Freedom.
This month will mark the 59th anniversary of the March on Washington for jobs and freedom. And I knew I wanted to make some type of content surrounding that. But it wasn't until I started my deep dive that I came across the story of Ledger Smith. Ledger, at this time, is 27 years old with a wife and three kids. His wife is also on the way to the March but she took the train. Now Uncle Ledge was not some novice on the wheels, he was a semi-pro performer out of Los Angeles. Performing jumps over chairs, doing cart wheels, and even a fire hoop act all on roller skates. But even with all that in the repertoire, it still doesn't compare to an almost 700 mile trek from Chicago to DC.
But he has trained greatly for this journey. See, two weeks leading up, he ran five miles a day to prepare himself for the rigors his body would have to endure. It's no accident that he's traveling there on skates, he has a message. When asked, he said he wanted to, "Dramatize the March by picking the slowest way." And boy, he wasn't kidding. But there is another message. But before we get into it, let's leave Uncle Ledge to focus on the road. He's going to need it. We will check back in with him later.
Now, if you know black culture then you are probably aware of the impact it has made on the hobby of roller skating. This is highlighted in the 2019 vice documentary found on HBO, United Skates.
Speaker 2 (05:08):
As you go across the country you'll find, if it's a really thriving rink, it's because they have a really strong
African American skate community.
Speaker 3 (05:15):
It was a place where the streets, everybody, met up.
Dominic Lawson (05:20):
But that wasn't always the case. And to highlight this, let's go back ways. It's going to take us a while to get there. Hey, while we get there, don't you just love history? Going back in time, learning stuff. It's kind of cool, huh? Okay, right about here. The roller skate was created in 1863 and roller rinks were created a year later. But roller skating was mostly something the rich did for entertainment. It would gain more popularity at the end of the 1800s as more roller rinks were mass produced during the rapid economic growth of the gilded age. And it would reach a peak from the end of World War I to the beginning of the great depression.
But its popularity would pick up again in the fifties and sixties. But roller rinks, just like swimming pools, museums, and amusement parks, were segregated and black and Hispanic people were not allowed to come. In Victoria W. Walcott's book, Race, Riots, and Roller coasters, the call to desegregate these places of leisure was crucial to the civil rights movement. And that call came straight from the top. Remember that Southern preacher from Georgia I mentioned at the top of the show? Well, months earlier, before the March on Washington, while sitting in a Birmingham jail, he penned a letter and he talks about the need to desegregate places of leisure. And here, thanks to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University is Dr. King reading an excerpt from his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (07:10):
When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stuttering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that fun town is closed to colored children and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little sky and see her beginning to start distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people, then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
Dominic Lawson (07:58):
And many organizations shared the sentiment of Dr. King, the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE, and maybe even one of the unlikeliest of allies of civil rights, the US communist party. Yes, that same communist party. They actually led a campaign to integrate a roller rink in 1938 in Brooklyn, New York. The owners of the Mecca Roller Skating Palace wouldn't sell tickets to black members of the CPUSA. They put up quite a fight to integrating their roller rink but they eventually backed down when they were threatened with court action. The CPUSA would celebrate this victory with a big integrated skate party at the very same roller rink.
So as you can see, that was the other message Uncle Ledge shared as he headed to Washington DC on roller skates. Speaking of Uncle Ledge, let's check back in with him. It's day three of his trip, on August 19th, 1963. From Chicago, he's traveled through East Chicago, Indiana, Hammond, and Gary, Indiana en route to... Wait, hold on for a second. Y'all hear that? Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. King. Not yet, King. Hold on for a second, we're not there yet. Thank you. Ooh, pop stars, am I right? Okay. Where was I?
Like I was saying, he's gone through Michigan city, South Bend, Indiana, Elkhart. And is now on US Highway 30 just outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Uncle Ledge is still riding with his freedom sash and
he is greeted pleasantly by both black and white people as he passes. They say things like, "God bless you," and, "See you in DC." But of course there was the occasional heckler of people who felt some type of way about the March on Washington.
You know what? Hold up for a sec because there's a car coming up on him pretty fast. Watch out Uncle Ledge! Man, that is crazy. A car just pulled up and tried to hit Ledger Smith. Wow, people really don't want him to make it to DC. Luckily they miss him. However, I shouldn't be surprised by this action. See, according to a Gallup poll, 57% of Americans said that civil disobedient activities, such as sit- ins and mass demonstrations, hurts the chances of integration. Even a year later, after the March on Washington, a whopping 74% of people thought that mass demonstrations were detrimental to achieving racial equality. The NAACP officials who were traveling with Uncle Ledge, I imagine, check him out to make sure he is okay. And it appears that Uncle Ledge is unbothered and continues into Ohio, getting ever closer to DC. And while he's doing that, and speaking of that very March, let's discuss how it came to be in the first place. We'll check back with Uncle Ledge later.
Let's go back to 1941. See, many black soldiers were left out of World War II defense jobs and programs created by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal after the great depression. One of the leaders of the civil rights movement at the time, a Philip Randolph, plans a March on Washington to protest these matters. However, the March is canceled the day before when Randolph meets with President Roosevelt as he has agreed to enact an executive order for bidding discrimination against those in government and the defense industry. He establishes the fair employment practice committee, or FEPC, to enforce these matters. However, with the passing of President Roosevelt in 1945, the FEPC is dissolved when Congress halted the funding for the commission the next year in 1946.
Now during the fifties Randolph would call for a March on Washington to capitalize on Dr. King's rise to national prominence. But it doesn't come to pass. I mean, there was a gathering in 1957 to celebrate the third anniversary of Brown vs. The Board of Education ruling in an effort to urge the federal government to enforce the decision but that's about it. But as violent attacks towards civil rights demonstrators continued, including during a children's March in Birmingham, Alabama, where TV cameras and newspapers capture protestors as old as 18 and as young as seven with fire hoses being used on them, that would change things greatly.
Mamie Chalmers (12:53):
During 1963, we heard of a man coming to town, his name was Martin Luther King Jr., and he would be
speaking at 16th Street Baptist church and we could join him there.
Dominic Lawson (13:07):
This is Mamie Chalmers, a civil rights activist. She was one of those young people there at Kelly Ingram
Mamie Chalmers (13:14):
We were in Kelly Ingram park. Every day we would meet right in that park. And we was there getting ready, getting all the assignments where was we going to March on that day. Bull Connor, he called up the Birmingham Fire Department, told them, "Turn the water hose on them [inaudible 00:13:33] and they won't have to take a bath." He ordered that, that was an order, direct order from him. And that's what they did. And today I'm deaf in one ear because of that. Dr. King explained to us that this is a non- violent March. You might get kicked, you might get spit on, but tell the person that's doing it, "I still love you," just the same.
Dominic Lawson (13:55):
One of the great tools used in the civil rights movement, besides nonviolent protest, was media. Videos and images of this March was not only thrust into the homes of American families, but in media around the world. Including one of the biggest of them all, the British Broadcasting Company, or the BBC. Remember, this is 1963 during the height of the cold war with Russia. So Russian newspapers would take American exceptionalism to task. To give you an idea of how horrific this scene is, at the time of the March attorney David Vann is on the phone with American businessman A.G. Gaston. I have to warn you, what Gaston describes is chilling to say the least.
David Vann (14:46):
And he was expressing a great deal of resentment about King coming in and messing up the things just when we were getting a new start. And then he said to me, he said, "Mayor Vann," he said, "They've turned fire hoses on a black girl. They're rolling that little girl right in the middle of the street. Now I can't talk to you no more."
A.G. Gaston (15:08):
At that, it was either stand up on my building, looking down on Bull Connor and them shooting water in the park right across from my office there in that park. I guess that's the most outstanding thing in my mind right now. I just couldn't imagine what could happen.
Dominic Lawson (15:28):
I can imagine the American people were starting to understand what was going on in the American south to black people. And the sentiment my wife shares all the time, especially those who are probably on the fence about civil rights, is this. Once you see it, you can't unsee it. And from there, the movement towards a March on Washington was in motion.
Now President Kennedy was not exactly thrilled at the idea of the March. He said it was, "Ill timed." He might have had a point. See, his civil rights bill had stalled in Congress. Now he would ultimately, but reluctantly, endorse the March. But he sent his attorney general and younger brother, Robert Kennedy, to organize with Bayard Rustin, chief organizer of the event. Quick side note, if you ever want a great case study on the logistics of how to pull off a historic event like the March on Washington, study how Uncle Bayard pulled this off. It's a logistical masterpiece, if you ask me. The demonstration would be limited to the Lincoln Memorial. The original plan was to first go to the Lincoln Memorial and then to the capital to urge the passing of the civil rights act.
President Kennedy didn't want the protest to make it to the capital for fear of, and I'm not making this up, having Congress feel as if it was under siege. Wow, history is such a powerful teaching tool because speaking of sieges and the capital, 56 years later tells us that civil rights activists should have been the least of their worries, but I digress.
But as we look over at the Potomac river, I think I see our guy. He's done it. His 10 day trip that started off in downtown Chicago and saw him go through Ohio into Pennsylvania, through the cities of Pittsburgh, Uniontown, Cumberland, Hagerstown, Maryland, and Frederick, and finally into DC. He can hear the singing of the sea of 250,000 people there for a common cause. Someone else is there also.
Mamie Chalmers (17:57):
Well, on that hot day in August '63 I was eager, as they say, I was all fired up.
Dominic Lawson (18:03):
Remember Mamie Chalmers was from the children's march? While she did sustain injuries in Alabama, it appears her conviction never wavered.
Mamie Chalmers (18:12):
And ready to participate again. Do anything that I could. One of the things that inspired me was when
Dr. King said, "I have a dream." And that was one of the things that really inspired me to march.
Dominic Lawson (18:29):
Now I'm sure Uncle Ledge is tired, achy, and probably a bit hungry. Hey, Uncle Ledge, make sure you grab one of those lunches the New York labor union sent. As a matter of fact, get two of them. You deserve it, my man. Hey, it looks like someone's about to speak. Who is that young fellow up there?
John Lewis (18:47):
We marched today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of for hundreds and
thousands of our brothers are not here.
Dominic Lawson (18:57):
If you remember, I mentioned a future Congressman at the top of the show who would speak at the March. The voice you hear as a 23 year old John Lewis, who at the time was the national chairman of the student nonviolent coordinating committee or SNCC. And you could tell early on that Uncle John absolutely had no problem speaking truth to power.
John Lewis (19:23):
My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation. There are exceptions, of course. We salute those. But what political leader can stand up and say, "My party is the party of principles?" For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater.
Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham? Where is the political party that will protect the citizens of Albany, Georgia? Do you know that in Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted, not by the Dixiecrats, but by the federal government for peaceful protest? But what did the federal government do when Albany’s deputy sheriff beat Attorney C.B. King and left him half dead? What did the federal government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King and she lost her baby? To those who have said, "Be patient and wait," we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!
We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, "Be patient." How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.
Dominic Lawson (21:35):
If you ever have the privilege of watching this speech, you can see Bayard Rustin still orchestrating and making sure that the March on Washington goes as smooth as possible. And as we pan back to Uncle Ledge, oh wow, it looks like he's about to be interviewed. Let's see what he has to say.
Speaker 9 (21:52):
Malcolm Davis standing by on stage with another interview with a noted personality. Please come in,
Malcolm Davis (21:58):
Ladies and gentlemen, we do have an extremely interesting guest standing with us here, now, who has
just been talking to all of the people here. Sir, would you tell us your name?
Ledger Smith (22:06): Ledger Smith.
Malcolm Davis (22:08):
Now, sir, would you tell us how you came to Washington and from where you came and by what means
Ledger Smith (22:13):
Okay. I left Chicago the 17th of August on roller skates. I arrived in Washington, DC on the 27th at a
quarter to one.
Malcolm Davis (22:22):
Tell me, so what sort of problems did you have? Did you have to take along spare wheels or spare
Ledger Smith (22:26):
Oh, I do have three sets of wheels that I carried with me, which I didn't need. I didn't need in spare
wheels at all. And my skates held up pretty good.
Malcolm Davis (22:34):
What sort of problems did you meet in this journey?
Ledger Smith (22:36):
Well, there was times when people would cut out at me with a car, say a place in Indiana guy tried to
run me down but he missed.
Malcolm Davis (22:44):
Glad to hear that. Tell me, were you allowed on the main parkways or did you have to travel by side
streets all the way? Ledger Smith (22:49):
No, I was more or less on the main streets. But not the toll roads. They was the old, you would say, the
old highways that each city used.
Malcolm Davis (22:56):
Now of course, a journey like this on roller skates takes an enormous amount of strength and dexterity.
And you have to travel with luggage. What did you do about that?
Ledger Smith (23:03):
Well, I had been working out for, I'd say over a week, running five miles every day.
Malcolm Davis (23:08):
And how long had you been doing this running and training for this particular [inaudible 00:23:13]
Ledger Smith (23:13):
Well, I did this running training for least two weeks.
Malcolm Davis (23:15):
Now that you are here, sir, would you mind telling us, are you going to actually participate in the March
Ledger Smith (23:21):
Well, I hope to March in the March if I can find my delegation. Since I've been up here, I can't find them.
So I don't know yet what's going to happen.
Malcolm Davis (23:29):
What's the chances that you won't actually walk in the March but skate?
Ledger Smith (23:32):
Right. Well, I don't think I'll be with skate in the March, I don't think.
Malcolm Davis (23:37):
Can you tell me, sir, if you have any particular plans that you intend to follow through while you were
Ledger Smith (23:43):
While I'm here I'd like to find my wife because she come up and I haven't found her yet.
Malcolm Davis (23:48):
She didn't come on skates?
Ledger Smith (23:49):
No, she didn't. She came by the train.
Malcolm Davis (23:51):
Are you going to skate back?
Ledger Smith (23:52):
No, I don't want to see the skates for month now.
Dominic Lawson (23:55):
I don't blame you Uncle Ledge. You go rest those skates and find your wife. And as Ledger Smith joins his wife and the over 250,000 there in attendance, they present to America and the world a united front against inequality and injustice. And just like America, this crowd is very diverse. From the labor unions I mentioned earlier that brought lunches in addition to nurses and doctors to the March, to the clergymen from all walks of faith. It makes sense when you think about it, that is because while Black America may be the face of this March, its goal was equality for all. Not just Black people, the disabled, women, the LBGTQA+, and every other marginalized community. The march was a success, not only because it went off without a major incident, but freedom would begin to ring in the halls of Congress. The civil rights act would pass in 1964, followed by the voting rights act in 1965.
On the great seal of the United States is the Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum, which means Out Of Many, One. It's in reference to the emergence of a single nation out of the union of the 13 original colonies. For Ledger Smith, he understood the importance of this phrase. And while he took a very unique and dangerous route to the March on Washington, he knew that traveling to DC on skates would highlight the complexities and the importance of the need for equality for all.
This country was built on protest and it would be that same vehicle needed to make it live up to the ideals we have placed upon it. And on August 28th, 1963, as Ledger "Roller Man" Smith made his way to the Lincoln Memorial, he was able to lend his voice to become that powerful force to make a difference. It's funny how history works, because whether it's a summer day in 1963 DC, or a cold Chicago night in 2008, it's pretty amazing what you can accomplish when people get together for a common cause. Ladies and gentlemen, we leave you with the President of the United States.
President Barack Obama (26:29):
It's been a long time coming but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this
defining moment, change has come to America.
Dominic Lawson (26:41):
The Black is America podcast, a presentation of Owl's Education, was created and is written, researched, and produced by me, Dominic Lawson. Executive producer, Kenda Lawson. Cover art was created by Alexandria Eddings of Art Life Connections. Sources to create this episode come from the National Civil Rights Museum, history.com, the New York Times, the Baltimore African American, WAMU National Public Radio in DC, and others. For a complete list of sources go to this episode's show notes in your podcast player or our website www.blackisamericapodcast.com. Scenes from United Skates are courtesy of Vice, HBO Documentary films, a Warner Brother Discovery Company.
Be sure to like, review, and subscribe to the Black is America podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts. Also, let people know about the podcast, we would greatly appreciate that very much. For a full transcript of this episode and other resources, go to www.blackisamericapodcast.com. There you can read our blog, leave us a review, or you can leave a voicemail message where you can ask a question or let us know what you think about the show that we
may play in an episode. You can also hit the donation button if you like what you heard, which helps us to create more educational content like this. Finally, thank you so much for listening to the Black is America podcast, where our history comes to life. Until next time.