Determined to Make a Difference

Determined to Make a Difference
Posted on 05/11/2017
Gordon Watson and grandson

Language arts students are completing their Conflict Unit which includes the Civil Rights Movement, and they welcomed a visit from the grandfather of fellow 8th grader, Grant Watson.  Mr. Muilenburg briefly introduced Grant’s grandpa, Gordon Watson, by saying, “Everyone in 8th grade has been learning about the Civil Rights Movement, and our speaker today is an eyewitness of the Selma movement.  When we talk about primary resources for Project Based Learning (PBL), we have something even better than watching a YouTube video.  We have a gentleman here who actually witnessed that history.  Mr. Watson is going to tell you about the march and his experience in that.”  Watson then took the stage and shared his firsthand account of the Selma to Montgomery March.

“I don’t need to tell you that I am old.  That is why I was a part of the history from 52 years ago in Selma, Alabama.  I was a participant in the march from Selma to Montgomery and will talk about that in just a few seconds,” explained Watson.  He then asked the students if any have ever walked 54 miles in three days, to which no one raised their hand.  “We did this on behalf of other people, and one of the things that I would like to ask you is, have any of you ever participated in any kind of a demonstration supporting your parents in terms of injustice or bad stuff that is happening to them?” Again, no hands were raised.  Of the 600 people who participated in the Selma March on March 21, 1965, 300 of them were under the age of 20, and grabbing the attention of the students, Watson said, “Don’t ever tell me that young people can’t make a difference.”

Watson went on to share the background of the Alabama Freedom March, to gain voting rights for African Americans, explaining that it wasn’t until the third attempt leaving Selma, that the march reached its final destination, the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama.  With the help of President Linden B. Johnson and Judge Frank Johnson, an injunction against the State of Alabama was issued, and it allowed, under certain circumstances, the march from Selma to Montgomery to happen.  The National Guard and federal troops were sent to support the marchers as they moved along the route.  The march left from Selma on Sunday, March 21st, and continued about 12 miles the first day.  Then, part of the injunction was when the four-lane highway turned into two lanes, and the number of people marching needed to be decreased to 300, which they did.  Then when they got into Montgomery County, they could again gather all of the people they could muster.

Watson and five others drove from Morningside College in Sioux City to Alabama, and they joined the march on Tuesday afternoon.  “Our carload marched from Tuesday afternoon into Thursday, so we had basically two and a half days of actual walking along the highway,” said Watson.  They marched, along with an estimated 25,000 others, into Montgomery on the morning of March 25, 1965.  “We marched down Dexter Avenue, the main street which led to the capitol building where the speeches took place.  As we marched up we could see legislators and the governor looking out through the windows to see what was going on.”

“While we were marching to the capitol we were told not to look at any of the spectators on either side of the street because they were really mad.  Their view was that we were infringing on their lifestyle and threatening their way of life, which I guess we were,” shared Watson.  However, when someone tells him not to do something, he usually does it once to see what will happen.  “I looked over at this guy who was standing on a curb about three blocks away from the capitol, and our eyes met.  The guy had a red and green flannel shirt on, and I will never forget it as long as I live.  As his eyes caught mine, he started calling me a lot of names, and none of them were pleasant.  Then I knew why you didn’t make eye contact with the spectators.  The hate was incredible.  I had never experienced such a thing in my whole life.”  

Once the march reached the capitol, there was lots of music and several speeches before Martin Luther King Jr. got up and gave his “Our God is Marching On” speech on the steps of the capitol.  When the program was over, and as the crowd was breaking up, they came on the loud speaker, and told those with northern state plates to leave immediately.  That was the time when Watson and the others got scared.  They were told to drive straight north and not crisscross through the south because of the widespread tension.  “We headed straight north to get home.  It took us 26 hours to get from Sioux City to Alabama, and it only took us 24 hours to get home.  We were scared,” exclaimed Watson.

When Watson got home, his wife said people were asking her why he went rather than minding his own business.  “We had seen just enough on TV of some of these things that had happened previously, and some of us decided that is where we had to be,” replied Watson.  To this day, he has no regrets, because he believed in the cause and that it was the right thing to do. 

Though Watson never met Martin Luther King Jr., King led the march, and Watson knew he and his wife were always at the front.   When asked if it was his biggest accomplishment, Watson shared, “To me, it is still important today that I marched.  None of us did it by ourselves obviously, but to be part of that kind of history, and by August 6th the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Johnson.  At the time, Watson didn’t think about it being a big historical event, but rather, he hoped it would make a difference.

Language Arts instructor, Becky Koenig asked Watson how the tumultuous time in history impacted his belief system, and Watson responded, “I was lucky.  I grew up in Sioux City and attended Central High School, and we had every class of person from the richest to the poorest and all sorts of ethnic backgrounds.  I thought that is how the world was, and that is where it really started for me.  That was a strong foundation for what I came to believe and still very much believe today.”

Watson rounded out his talk by sharing that he was 23 when he marched and that the youngest person who made the entire 54-mile march was only 14 years old.  Watson shared with the students that the 14-year-old is quoted as saying she was not brave or courageous, but determined.  “This is how I got to Montgomery, and one of the reasons I mention this is because you are never too young to fight for a good cause,” ended Watson.