Sept. 3, 2013
Tiobe Barron, OVN correspondent
Fifty years ago, a Baptist minister from Georgia gave a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In his iconic speech, part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. detailed his wish to uphold the American dream for all its citizens, regardless of race.
“It kind of took the top of your head off,” says Ojai resident Geraldine Kennon of King’s speech, which she witnessed firsthand while participating in the March on Washington. “It was absolutely thrilling.”
Kennon, who was born and raised in northern California, says she had two main sources of inspiration for getting involved with the civil rights movement: her father, and her childhood best friend, Helene.
“When I was a little girl, my best friend was an African-American girl named Helene. As we grew up, we grew apart. I became aware that life was different for me than for Helene,” says Kennon. “I remember thinking it was unfair that the world treated her differently. It was a loss of childhood innocence in a way.”
As for her father, Kennon says he led by example, no matter what those around him chose to do or say.
“He inspired me to be a good person. He believed in the things this country was founded on, and understood those things weren’t necessarily realized for everyone,” says Kennon of her father. “He went against the mores of the time. He would hire people of color when others would not.”
Kennon remembers an instance when her father, who owned a contracting business, went against the local union and hired a longtime friend who was a skilled crane operator — and also African-American.
“I remember coming home from school, and a kid at school had said, ‘Your father is a n****r-lover!’ I asked my dad, ‘What does that mean? Why did he say that?’” Kennon recalls. “My father said, ‘Some people think we should treat certain people differently. Geraldine, I don’t love black people more than white people, but I don’t love them less.’”
Kennon became actively involved with the civil rights movement as a teenager; when she went to college, she fought to make her sorority integrated. It was during this time she became involved with a Planning Committee for the March on Washington.
“The Planning Committee was enormous, and it was really exciting, because you got to meet a lot of older people in the movement, like A. Philip Randolph, who was just an incredible human being, the President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,” recounts Kennon.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first predominantly African-American labor union, organized and led by Randolph, who also was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington movement as way to address the economic problems then facing the African-American community.
In addition to meeting leaders of the time, Kennon says it was the emphasis on the peaceful and respectful nature of the gathering that impressed her.
“People were in suits and trousers, dresses and skirts. Everyone was trying so hard to put their best foot forward so all the focus was on the issues,” says Kennon. “We saw our goals achieved; the march was peaceful when there was a potential for others with their own agendas to disrupt it. It was wonderful. We look back now and see it as this iconic event. Dr. King — and the other leaders, but specifically Dr. King — accomplished something with that speech that no one else could, except maybe a President.”
Kennon is not alone in remembering that moment in history and the impact it had; Ojai City Council member Carol Smith and California Representative Julia Brownley also had their own thoughts on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
“In August ’63, I was 18 years old. I woke up at four a.m., went to the bus station, and took the bus to D.C.,” said Councilwoman Smith at the Aug. 27 Council meeting. “The event was the March on Washington. It was overwhelming. It was breath taking. We all heard speeches. We all sang at on point. For me, and I think for the country in the ‘60s, it was one of the most outstanding events.”
“As we commemorate the courage and bravery of those who fought before us, it is important to recognize that our work is not yet finished,” said Representative Brownley in a recent press release. “We are still fighting for equal access to quality education, the right to vote without unnecessary barriers, the right to marry who you love regardless of gender and equal pay for equal work.”
Kennon also believes that while the country has progressed on racial disparity since that era, there is work yet to be done.
“When President Obama was elected, there was a minority of voices saying hateful things, and you realize racism is not dead. There will always be those who have hate instead of love or brotherhood,” says Kennon. “Things, while they are not perfect, are different. They have certainly improved. It’s not that all those negatives have been wiped out, but we certainly are more tolerant, and more people have a greater opportunity to live their lives fairly.”
Kennon, who was born and raised in the Episcopalian church, says that while her career has focused on acting, producing and directing in the theater, her background and her conscience have guided her action in causes she believed in. Specifically, Kennon helped establish an AIDS ministry through her church, worked as an administrator of St. George’s College in Jerusalem, and, while she worked there, she volunteered at a refugee camp in her days off.
“In my personal life, I have always had a commitment to issues of human freedom and tolerance, to just be a little drop in the bucket to help people suffer less,” says Kennon. “For me as I live through my life in these times, the most pressing issue was an end to racial prejudice, an end to all prejudice, whether it’s prejudice against women, prejudice against gender, against sexual preference. It comes down to not feeling that we have a right to categorize and make some people free and others partly free … I think we always need to be alert to people who are disadvantaged in any way.”