LA activist recalls March on Washington era as hopeful, turbulent

March on Washington button

Corey Moore/KPCC

Buttons collected by Zelde Malevitz when she attended the March on Washington that she still keeps in her jewelry box at her home in Los Angeles.

The "March on Washington" was key to the civil rights movement, but it also inspired many to become active in other issues. One Los Angeles woman shares how her trip to the nation’s capital half a century ago inspired her to work for others.  

Zelde Malevitz, 64,  advocates for human rights in Cuba with a focus on helping prisoners. The Los Angeles resident says millions of them endure cruel and inhuman treatment.

She's also spent many years as a member of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. The civil rights organization, founded by a group of interracial college students, helped sponsor the March on Washington.

RELATED: Obama to outline unfinished work, decades after King's dream

The spark to work on these and other causes was lit when Malevitz was 14 years old and listened to a famous "I Have A Dream" speech given by a passionate, young Southern preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King.

Malevitz shared her story over a cup of coffee near her home in the Fairfax neighborhood. 

A Hopeful Time

“The crowd was just riveted," Malevitz recalled about that day 50-years-ago. "Dr. King looked kind of small up there but his words were very, very big and very powerful."

Malevitz is Jewish. Her ancestors moved to America to escape religious persecution in Eastern Europe. She was born in New York City and recalls what it was like growing up there.

“In those days the 1960s were a very hopeful time," she said. "It was time where the black community and the Jewish community got along extraordinarily well.”  

She and her family often participated in demonstrations for justice. They looked forward to heading down to D.C. from the Big Apple.

“My dad, who was working, flew down.  My mom and sister and myself took the bus — one of the many, many organized buses that came from all over the country.”  

That bus carried people mostly from New York’s Jewish community.  They sang "We Shall Overcome” much of the way.  

It wasn’t the only trip Malevtiz had taken as a child.  She remembers what she saw in other places, particularly in the South.

Standing Among the Masses

Malevitz  remembers the separate water fountains and separate bathrooms. 

"A decent bathroom for the white folks and a completely unacceptable facility for the black folks," she said. "I remember the days in Miami when the Jews could not go north of 5th street but black folks had to walk in the street, not even on the sidewalk.”  

But she also recalls how people were energized and optimistic at the time. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional in the case Brown v. Board of Education.

Nearly a decade after that decision, a teenage Malevitz stood among the masses gathered in the nation’s capital. 

Reenergizing Dr. King's Dream

Blacks and whites were united at the March on Washington.  One of Malevitz's favorite buttons that she received on that day shows a black hand shaking a white hand.  The other displays Dr. King’s face and says “Poor Peoples Campaign.”  

“I keep them in my jewelry box and I wear them every year on Dr. King’s Birthday," Malevitz said. "With the exception of one person from England and one college student at Cal State L.A., no one seems to recognize what they are.”  

That worries her. Because although  Malevitz says the nation has come a long way since that turbulent time in the 1960s, she feels the essence of Dr. King’s words has been lost.

“When we have equal opportunity that does not mean equal results.  When we use the image of Dr. King we need to remember what he actually stood for.” 

She's also bothered by what she calls the segregation of Los Angeles. It doesn't have the "mix" that she remembers growing up in New York.

"We have east of the 101, west of the 101," she said. "We even have west of the 405, north of the 10, south of the 10.  If I tell somebody I'm going to Leimert Park or Boyle Heights, they practically lay down on the floor and say 'What?'"     

Malevitz said young people in particular can help reenergize King's dream of racial equality by educating themselves about the history of the civil rights movement.

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