LIers recall 1963's 'energizing' March on Washington

Eugene A. Burnett talks about his experience in the civil rights movement and witnessing Dr. Martin Luther King's historic speech in Washington 50 years ago. Videojournalist: Ed Betz, Photos by AP (Aug. 23, 2013) 

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On Aug. 28, 1963, a young physician from Roslyn, along with his community-activist wife, boarded a predawn train jammed with a boisterous crowd. They were headed south to join the March on Washington.

It was an inspiring moment for Dr. Peter Rogatz, a self-described liberal who before then had regarded his wife, Marge Rogatz, as the lone social activist between them. Three years later, inspired by what he saw during the March on Washington, he headed south again, this time to Mississippi, to study the feasibility of setting up a rural health care network for poor residents in the state's so-called "black belt" farming region.

"It was energizing," Rogatz, 87, of Port Washington, recalled of the mass rally 50 years ago this Wednesday, which drew an estimated quarter-million participants in support of racial equality and featured a historic address by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"It encouraged me to believe there was a level of commitment by huge numbers of people, and led me to believe there would be a shift in attitude for the whole country."

For Peter and Marge Rogatz, 85, the March on Washington was not a single event in time, but an energizing path toward social change they have traveled ever since. It was history, on a grand as well as a very personal scale.

Hazel Dukes, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's New York State office and a veteran of the march, said the mass demonstration persuaded a generation of Long Islanders that social activism could be effective.

Dukes, a native-born Alabamian, met the Rogatzes shortly after moving to Roslyn in the 1950s. She said the march inspired her to deepen her activism. Working with a group called the Roslyn Committee for Civil Rights, Dukes and Marge Rogatz collaborated on projects to challenge landlords to rent to black tenants; pressured schools to end racial discriminatory practices in the classroom; and helped elect the first black member of the Roslyn school board.

"Dr. King told us to go back to Georgia, go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama and speak out there," Dukes said. "But we were returning back to Roslyn, to Port Washington, to Manhasset and Great Neck. So when we returned back, keeping in the spirit of Martin Luther King, we looked at the education black children got, the housing in which they lived, the segregation that was right here on Long Island."

Certainly, much has changed since King addressed what he predicted would be regarded as "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation." While only one in four black Americans held a high school diploma in 1964, more than four in five do today. The son of an African immigrant is the nation's president.

In 1963, the Supreme Court was composed of nine white men, including a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Today, a black man, two Jewish women, and a self-described Latina from the Bronx are among the justices.

Eugene Burnett, 84, of Wheatley Heights, said much has changed for the good since he organized a bus to take marchers to Washington in 1963.

He has been involved in social activism mostly ever since, he said, helping to focus black political power in Babylon Town elections and challenging perceived racial disparities in area schools, volunteer fire departments and police agencies.

But he said he believes recent developments, including a June decision by the Supreme Court overturning a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, threaten to reverse social gains he and others worked for.

"Listen, no one can deny we've made a lot of progress," Burnett said. "But we still have a long way to go."

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