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March on Washington a life-changing event for Valrico woman


Published:   |   Updated: August 28, 2013 at 05:58 PM

VALRICO – It was 50 years ago when Valrico resident Althea Kironde-Lee, then in her early 20s, was introduced to Bayard Rustin by her mother, Edna Hawkins.

“We need some help down at the union,” said her mom, liaison between Lerner New York and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union’s District 65. “They’re organizing some march or something.”

It was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Kironde-Lee was enthralled by the impressive, avant-garde Rustin, with perfect English. She typed and mimeographed copies promoting the march.

On Aug. 28, 1963, Kironde-Lee, her sister Jean and Doris, a Jewish friend, traveled by train to Washington, D.C.

At Union Station they were given bag lunches and warned to stick together – there might be trouble.

She saw “a sea of beautiful people. Then we were surrounded by the black Muslims in suits and bow ties. Black men and white men standing along the way were our protective shield, in case of trouble from thugs or the D.C. police.

“But there was no trouble! It was so unified. People were hugging and kissing, talking and laughing. Then we marched, carrying a District 65 banner.

“It was a very happy time,” she said. “We didn’t feel sun, we didn’t feel pain; I don’t think any of us ever got tired!”

The march to the Lincoln Memorial was a blur, she said. There was singing; she saw the water. The next thing she remembered was rapt silence as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dramatically started his “I have a dream” speech.

“Though there was power in his speech, there was a thread of sadness, as if a foreboding,” said Kironde-Lee. “And then it was over. We got on the train back to New York, the most silent train I’d ever been on. We were stunned.”

Everyone there knew that history was made.

“This was not a black march,” said Kironde-Lee. “We were surrounded by all people – Native Americans in native dress, Muslims, Jews and Catholic priests and nuns. I cannot describe the vastness of that march.

“It was a love fest, not a protest,” she said. “There was so much love that if your sandwich fell, 10 people would give you theirs.

“My life was changed by that. [Since the march] I’ve never been able to walk by a person and perceive a need without asking if I can help,” said Kironde-Lee, who headed Nativity Catholic Church’s outreach to the poor for 15 years and has worked for justice with a United Nations African women’s organization, the Caribbean House Health Center, Nativity Catholic Church pastoral council and National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice.

Kironde-Lee, born in Trinidad to a well-off family descended from African royalty, also has Irish ancestry. She attended school in France and lived in Uganda while she was married to Uganda’s ambassador to the United Nations.

This background gives her a broad view of issues, she said.

In 1987, Kironde-Lee married her lifelong Brooklyn friend, retired Army Sgt. Maj. Gerald L. Lee.

Since their move to Florida in 1989, occasionally Kironde-Lee has heard racist remarks, seen women clutch purses as she approaches and been trailed as a potential shoplifter.

“They don’t see my heart,” she said. “Just the blackness of my skin.”

Kironde-Lee believes the march made life “better for a while, but it’s worse now, because we should know better,” she said. “We should not sit in such harsh judgment of each other. There is no black-and-white issue. There are middle grounds on everything, and we have to learn sometimes to go there.

“If a woman was born in the South, she can like me as an individual, but she’s going to treat my son the same way she would treat Trayvon (Martin), because in her head, the black boy in a hoodie becomes a threat,” said Kironde-Lee.

“We can’t do that anymore to people,” she said. “We must learn to see love and compassion in each other and take time to find the human being under the skin.”

The picture on her souvenir March on Washington button – clasped hands, one black, one white – sums up what the march meant to her.

“Love doesn’t have a color,” she said. “I hope my legacy is that I’m doing the best I could for all people, not just for some.”

Contact Barbara Routen at Neighbors@tampabay.rr.com.

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