08/23/2013

1963 march participant Jesse Turner

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'They didn’t know what apathy meant'

Jesse Turner’s grandfather couldn’t get anybody from his church, or the prison where he worked and served as a shop steward, to come along with him to the 1963 March on Washington. Wanting a companion, the old man picked up his 8-year-old grandson in Jersey City, N.J., for the trek to Washington, D.C.

Jesse Turner

The younger Turner doesn’t remember much, but he did notice a few things.

“We walked forever,” he says. “We just walked and took the train.”

He remembers the transistor radios people were holding to their ears. His family didn’t have one. He remembers that he never saw so many African-American people in his life. And he remembers hearing the songs of Peter, Paul and Mary, a folk group he recognized from TV.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream,” he remembers being hoisted to his grandfather’s shoulders. The crowd was so quiet, it felt like being in church, and he knew, even as an 8-year-old, that King’s powerful voice was like nothing he had ever heard or would ever hear again.

That day changed his life. Turner went on to become a history teacher, and the former AFT member now works as a professor at Central Connecticut State University. He was a founding member of Save Our Schools. In 2010, Turner walked 400 miles in 40 days from Connecticut to Washington, D.C., to protest high-stakes assessments.

He credits his grandfather’s generation for instilling his social consciousness.

“They didn’t know what apathy meant. They didn’t know what silence meant,” he says. “The continuation was natural, that I’d be following in his footsteps.”

Reflecting, Turner adds that in 50 years’ time, you’d think our nation would have found a way to provide an equal education for everybody. It hasn’t happened, though, so he’s going back to march again on Washington and reclaim that promise.