John Gilchrist was just a teenager in 1963, working at Bryant’s Auto Service Center to save money for college. He had a hard job but rode a night train to the nation’s capital so others might have an equal chance for one, too.
Now 68 and a grandfather, Gilchrist will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom from his home in Augusta knowing that his participation a half-century ago helped open doors for equal rights and social justice.
“I had a job, but there were many that didn’t have a job,” Gilchrist said. “I participated simply because lots of things took place during that time.”
Several days of events will commemorate the historic event. On Saturday, a march tracing the route is expected to draw at least 150,000 people. A second, smaller march will be held on the anniversary itself, Aug. 28.
Elias Burton Jr., of Augusta, rode the train to Washington because he wanted racial discrimination to end. He sat in the back of the school bus, drank from separate water fountains from whites and swam at a segregated pool.
“I was wondering was this ever going to end,” Burton said. “You just couldn’t go certain places. You couldn’t do certain things.”
The struggle for equal work continued after the march, Burton said. When he began working for a Georgia agency in the early 1970s, he was the first black hired in the department.
Burton wasn’t promoted equally, he said, until the federal government uncovered the unequal treatment. He retired from the agency, which he declined to specify, in 2004.
“I was qualified for the job. That’s why I was hired,” Burton said. “It started out to be a struggle, but then things progressed.”
Gilchrist, a 1963 graduate of Lucy C. Laney High School, began working at age 6. Wages from working in an ice house, a grocery store and later Bryant’s at the corner of 10th Street and Gwinnett Street (now Laney-Walker Boulevard) helped the family income, he said.
Leading up to the 1963 march, Gilchrist remembers Augusta sit-ins at lunch counters at the S.H. Kress and H.L. Green stores and at neighborhood curb markets.
When Thankful Baptist Church offered to pay for his train ticket to the march, Gilchrist stopped pumping gas, washing cars and changing oil for two days.
A group of at least 20 people from Augusta boarded a train to Florence, S.C. where the car latched onto a “freedom train” traveling from Miami to D.C.
Near the base of the Lincoln Memorial, Gilchrist stood a half-football field away from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke to a crowd of more than 200,000 people that had descended on the National Mall.
Gilchrist graduated from Fort Valley State College with a degree in business administration in 1968. He worked at Bryant’s auto shop until 1983, then taught at Augusta Technical College for nearly 25 years before retiring.
He measures the progress that has been made since an era when segregation was legal in much of the country by the successes of his children, but said there is still much work ahead. His son and daughter graduated from college and now work in public schools teaching the next generation, which will continue the fight for justice.
“Change is going to take place with or without us,” Gilchrist said. “You want to be part of it so change can be better and more successful for all human beings.”