3 Teens, one mission. To walk from Gadsden AL to Washington, DC in the summer of 1963.
The Longest March
ON A PITCH-BLACK NIGHT, a crescent moon barely visible in the sky, three teenaged boys walked along the gentle slopes of Highland Avenue on the edge of Lookout Mountain, then to U.S. Highway 11, north of their hometown of Gadsden, Alabama.
The oldest, a seventeen-year-old named Frank Thomas, led. The two younger ones, a sixteen-year-old named James Foster Smith and a fifteen year- old named Robert Avery, walked ten or twenty feet behind. James and Robert tried to stay out of earshot of Frank.
Tall and lean, these boys became men during the summer. They didn’t just play football in the street, act in school plays, walk up to the waterfall, or hang out on Sixth Street. They traveled the world, places like New York, Atlanta, and Birmingham. They learned from some of the legendary figures of the civil rights movement, like Julian Bond and John Lewis. They confronted the white supremacist mobs in the Gadsden demonstrations.
“Are we really doing this?” one of the younger ones said as they trudged along the road. “He’s going to turn back,” the other answered.
At about ten o’clock at night, the teenagers began a journey of 675 miles to the nation’s capital. They carried a sign reading “To Washington or Bust.” Now, after midnight, they wondered whether they would really walk to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the grand finale of the civil rights movement in the sweltering summer of 1963.
Earlier that night, they gathered at Sip Harris’s nightclub, one of the regular meeting places of the Gadsden Movement. James and Robert had just gotten home from a two-week trip to New York, where they raised funds for the movement by speaking about their experiences down south. Over Cokes, they told Frank about the famous people they met. Frank missed out on New York. He wanted one last adventure before starting school again.
“The March on Washington is coming up,” Frank said. “Man, I sure would like to go.”
“Yeah, but we ain’t got no money,” Robert said.
“Well,” Frank said, “I been thinking of hitchhiking. I want to go bad.”
“Hey, that’s a good idea. We could do that.”
The conversation continued for a few hours. They debated whether their parents would let them set out on foot for Washington, D.C., without any real plan or money. They talked about how long it might take to walk. They didn’t know whether they could hitchhike rides.
“It’s going to take a long time,” Robert said. “That’s a long way.”
“We have to leave now to get there in time,” Frank said.
Then they stood up. Someone offered a ride to James’s house in East Gadsden, then to Robert’s house, near another nightclub and church where the civil rights movement gathered. It took a while to persuade James’s parents, but Robert’s mother said yes right away. Then they walked to Frank’s house and convinced his parents.
Then they walked up the mountain road, at the foot of Lookout Mountain. The road into the mountain begins long and straight, then twists every hundred yards or so on the way up, then straightens out again at the plateau.
Good thing it was dark out and everyone was sleeping. The road to Noccalula Falls was not necessarily the worst part of town for blacks, but no white parts of town were good for blacks in the summer of 1963.
“Are we really doing this?”
“I don’t know. I think so.”
“This fool is joking.”
“He’s going to turn around.”
Frank turned around.
“Come on up. Get up.”
They passed a big house, set up on the hill on the left side of the road. That was the house where the most notorious killer in Gadsden’s history was rumored to live.
They walked a couple hundred more feet. Robert moved out toward the center of the road. Then James moved farther into the road, to Robert’s left.
Frank noticed the two drifting.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “We all know where we’re about to be. This ought to inspire us. We don’t need to be afraid. Let’s have a prayer.”
They approached the spot where a white Baltimore postman named William Moore, resting near a picnic table by the side of the road, was shot dead on April 23. It was on the border of Etoweh and DeKalb counties. Everyone knew—or thought they knew—that the killer was the owner of the house the boys just passed.
William Moore was a marine in World War II and a former social worker, a white man who conducted a one-man campaign against racism. He protested a segregated theater in Baltimore and picketed the courthouse of his native town of Binghamton, New York. As a postman, he decided the best way to dramatize injustice was to deliver letters. He marched from Baltimore to the Maryland state capital of Annapolis to deliver a letter to the governor. He marched from Baltimore to Washington to deliver a letter to President John F. Kennedy at the White House, where a guard told him to “drop it in the mailbox.” Then, in the spring of 1963, Moore decided to march from Chattanooga to Jackson to deliver a letter to Mississippi governor Ross Barnett. The letter asked the governor to “be gracious and give more than is immediately demanded of you.”
Friends warned that his mission was too dangerous, and family members treated the journey as the irrational act of a deluded man. Moore went anyway. He pushed a mail caddy and wore a sandwich board reading “End Segregation in America” and “Equal Rights for All Men.” When he entered Alabama, he befriended a stray dog and talked to a man at a store.
Moore settled in for the night near Reece City, about six miles north of Gadsden. He found a patch of pavement just off the highway, with a picnic table and benches under the shade of a sweeping tree. Someone shot him twice with a .22-caliber rifle. A motorist found him facedown, with stocking feet; he had a clean wound over his left eyebrow and a jagged hole on the left side of his neck. Tests showed that Floyd Simpson, the white storeowner whom Moore met earlier that day, owned the gun. No one was ever indicted for the murder.
Moore’s murder brought the civil rights movement to Gadsden. The previous summer, attempts at demonstrations and sit-ins sputtered. But when Moore was martyred, organizers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) moved into town. They held meetings every night and targeted the segregated establishments along Broad Street—the Princess Theater, F. W. Woolworth, White Castle, Sears, Grant’s, Nelson’s.
They marched through the black neighborhoods, picking up people as they went. If they started with fifty, they ended up with a hundred. One day, they reached the courthouse with over a thousand demonstrators. Hundreds got arrested that day. When parents and friends gathered outside, police chief Al Lingo ordered his men to attack with cattle prods. Gadsden became a national story.
These three boys plunged into the movement. Now, they walked all night, three dark figures silhouetted against a dark night.
The three boys got on their knees. “We were all churchgoing kids,” Robert Avery later said. “Most black folk were churchgoing people. You had to be to survive.”
They prayed to God, asking for guidance and protection.
“That’s the first time I knew we were going all the way to Washington,” Robert Avery said.
The boys got their first ride about seventeen miles from their starting point, on Highway 11.
For a brief stretch, the boys rode a bus. But that trip exhausted their travel funds and so they hitchhiked up Highway 11 until they got to Virginia, and then got rides up Highway 29 to Lynchburg. White people gave them all but the last ride. In Lynchburg, where they saw Confederate flags and effigies of blacks, a black family picked them up and took them the rest of the way to Washington.
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