East Liverpool activist looks back on famed March on Washington

EAST LIVERPOOL – A last-minute decision when he was 35 years old led local activist Alonzo Spencer to an event that made history and which is still talked about a half century later.

It was Aug. 28, 1963 when Spencer decided to head for the nation’s capital for what was being called the March on Washington, where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were to speak.

“I’d heard about it, but didn’t make up my mind to go until the last minute because I’d have to take off work. Then I thought, ‘I’d better go.’ And now I’m glad I did.”

It was too late to go on any of the buses traveling to Washington from this area, so Spencer drove himself.

While he was aware of civil rights issues being discussed at that time, Spencer said, “I admit I didn’t realize (the march) was going to be so instrumental that it would be talked about 50 years later. I have read a lot about it since it happened and its importance has grown.”

When he arrived in Washington, Spencer said it was not so much the speakers and their words which impressed him but the people who came to hear them.

“What impressed me initially was the camaraderie of the people and the number of people. I’d never seen that many people, people of all stripes and the camaraderie between them. That struck me as very important, even before the speeches began,” he recollected.

Talking to people from all over the country who were facing the same issues the black community in East Liverpool was facing “made it more important to get together in such a march,” Spencer said.

Spencer read later that public officials and even the president were concerned that the march would become violent, but he said, “That was not in existence. It was peaceful, joyful.”

The speeches, including those of Dr. King, were filled with love, not hatred, he said.

“Mind you, there were a lot of speakers that day, not just Dr. King. I didn’t take away from that day to confront this with hatred. They didn’t say we have to hate anybody,” he chuckled.

He recollected his own brushes with discrimination, particularly in high school, where Spencer was heavily involved in athletics.

“We just accepted it,” he said of being treated differently due to his race.

One instance that stayed in his memory was traveling to Columbus with the track team his senior year for state finals. Spencer was one of six black members on the team.

“We stayed in private homes. The white members stayed in the biggest hotel in downtown Columbus,” he said matter-of-factly, saying he has remained friends with many of those team mates over the decades.

“I don’t believe anyone has ever discussed (the discrimination of that trip) to this day. We are friends today and we’ve never discussed it among ourselves,” he mused. “We just accepted it.”

After football games, Spencer recalled, the crowds would go to the YMCA for dances, but not the black high schoolers, who went to the East End Civic League building for their post-game parties.

He also recalled that the pool at Thompson Park was closed to blacks except one day per year when it was opened on the day that black churches held their picnics.

“It’s funny now,” he said, adding that, in later years, that type discrimination was fought and changed by black civic leaders in the city.

It wasn’t until Spencer returned in 1952 from the war in Korea that he became involved in the civil rights movement, having been away from East Liverpool for about five years between attending college and the military.

“I got caught up in it and it’s motivated me ever since,” he said.

He became active in the local NAACP which was struggling to integrate the police and fire departments and schools and, while the problems facing East Liverpool blacks were the same as those in the rest of the country, Spencer said, “We approached them in a different manner. We weren’t as confrontational.”

He said those in the local black community didn’t have their lives threatened as in other areas.

Spencer, now 85, said there has been a “great change” in civil rights but said, “The irony is there’s an attempt now to take us back to those days,” pointing to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that he said is aimed at depriving people of their right to vote and also downgrading public education.

“I guarantee you, I don’t believe anyone would think we’d be fighting the same battles today,” he said with a shake of his head.

The March on Washington made a difference by pulling people together in a common cause and by bringing the nation’s attention as a whole to civil rights issues, according to Spencer, who said he isn’t sure such an event would have the same impact today.

“I hope it won’t become as necessary today as it was then. That march was urgent; it was needed. I hope we haven’t regressed to that point,” he said, saying, “There’s a change of attitude now. There were laws then that protected those who segregated. Now it’s not legal.”

While “things have changed,” Spencer emphasized, “We all have to be cognizant of the problems we still have. We’re not living in a perfect world, but it’s worth the effort to strive for it.”

Over the years, Spencer has continued his fight for equality and for other causes, such as women’s rights, labor unions and environmental issues, having served many years as president of the Save Our County group and also currently as chairman of the board of directors for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

Those causes have brought him back to the nation’s capital many times, and each time he has returned to the site of that march.

“I always go back to the Lincoln Memorial and relate to that day and compare the issue I’m there for at that particular time with that time (in 1963),” he said.

Spencer said all his endeavors since have been guided by the message of hope and love that he heard that day, as well as the lessons he learned from his mother.

“I think you’re more successful in achieving your goals if you don’t project hatred. In the end, it works. I was raised by a very strict mother. She was very religious, very honest and very fair. I’d be mad at somebody, and she’d inject the word ‘love’ in (her advice),” he smiled.

“At my age, I’m a very lucky my mother would say blessed person, content with where I am. So, I owe it to society to give something back for those not as fortunate as I,” he said.

As with many successful men, behind Spencer is his wife, Rosalie, a pioneer in her own right, having been hired as the first black teacher at East Liverpool City School District, where she served 35 years.

“She has been active behind the scenes,” he said.

Asked if he would still march if need be, Spencer said with a smile, “I don’t think I could handle another day or two march, but if they do it, I’ll give it a try.”