April Smith, 64, doesn’t recall much about her first march on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. A teenager then, she traveled by train from Detroit with her 20-year-old sister, Kelly Smith, to hear Dr. Martin Luther King deliver a speech to 300,000 people crammed into the National Mall.
“I don't remember a lot about the march itself on that day,” said Smith, a Royal Oak resident. “My parents were political activists and my sister wanted to go, so I went with her. It was my first time to Washington and my first time on a train.”
Last weekend, Smith returned to Washington D.C. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
‘The right place to be’
A half-century ago, Smith was living with her parents in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Detroit. The child of political activists, she grew up making posters at churches and marching in picket lines.
“I didn’t think about it at the time, but my parents were endowing us with a multi-cultural view,” she said.
Smith said her mother put the girls on a train to Washington D.C. with some sandwiches. She wasn't able to travel with her daughters because she had a 1- and 2-year-old at the time that were too young to make the trip.
When Smith arrived at the National Mall, she was so far away from the Lincoln Memorial that she could barely make out who was speaking.
“There were so many people, it seemed like we were a mile away,” she said. “There were people as far as I could see.”
While Smith says she couldn’t hear the passionate speeches of the day, over the years she has grown to appreciate the historical significance of "being there in good company."
“I know now, it was the right place to be,” she said.
Return to the National Mall
Fifty years later, a different sister asked Smith to go to Washington D.C. This time it was Laura Dewey, the 2-year-old Smith’s mother stayed at home with all those years ago.
"My younger sister asked me to go this time," Smith said. "She thought it was important. You know, we are all activists."
The sisters travelled with Smith’s husband, John Rummel, and Jaqueline Dick, also of Royal Oak, to attend the 50th anniversary commemorative march, which was held Saturday. The march began at the Lincoln Memorial and made its way over to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
“It was great to be there and see people of ages—to see parents with small children,” Smith said. “I saw T-shirts from universities all over the country. It was pretty neat.”
While the crowd was inspiring, "there are still things going on,” she said, pointing to voting rights, income inequality and LBGT rights.
“We need to be more inclusive. We’re still figuring out how to make society better," she said.
Choking back tears, Smith recalls how a heartbroken Tracy Martin spoke Saturday of shooting death of his son Trayvon Martin.
"How is that a kid can be profiled, stalked and killed? It is so upsetting," she said. "How is that any different than lynching?"
Work to be done
On Sunday, Smith drove home to Royal Oak. A retired Detroit Public School teacher of 30 years, she moved here in 2004 from Detroit.
“I didn’t know a whole lot about Royal Oak when I moved here, but I’ve grown to appreciate it,” she said. “It’s very lively and politically progressive. We like to walk around downtown. We like all the old trees and the community.”
By Tuesday, Smith was ready to march again. She wanted to join demonstrators for Affordable Care Act in Lansing, but bad weather kept her in town.
“There is always work to be done,” the activist said.
'Let Freedom Ring'
The closing ceremony for a week of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom will be the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Aug. 28. Scheduled to speak are President Jimmy Carter, President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Lincoln Memorial.