By Jordyn Holliday
Retired College of DuPage administrator Ernie Gibson, Ph.D., has many fond memories of the historic March on Washington, which he played a part in organizing 55 years ago. None are greater than the display of unity he experienced during the protest on Aug. 28, 1963.
At the time, Gibson and his wife, Carolyn, managed the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, where his good friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders regularly held meetings and planned campaigns, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. Through his role at the motel, Gibson took on the responsibility of preparing buses to transport those heading to Washington, D.C., for the massive rally that included approximately 250,000 people and aimed to help achieve equal economic rights for minorities in America.
Gibson said his decision to help organize and participate in the March on Washington and other civil rights initiatives stemmed from experiences he and his loved ones had with racism and inequality dating back to his childhood.
“I got involved in demonstrations because of things I had witnessed since my early life,” he said. “It felt natural for me to get involved in the March on Washington, the Selma March and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Just as importantly, it also felt natural for me to do all of this even if it meant I’d go to jail.”
The march was the occasion of King’s iconic “I Have Dream” speech, which is the moment most people recall when thinking of both King and the event. While acknowledging the lasting importance of King’s words on that late summer day, Gibson said what resonated with him more than anything was watching thousands of people from a wide variety of backgrounds join together to make a difference in society.
“It was a coming together of a nation of people,” he said. “There were young black kids, old black folks, young white kids and old white folks from both the north and south. There was a sense of togetherness that was unmatched. I remember feeling very free and good about being there that day, because I was there with my brothers and sisters of different races and backgrounds. I am still in awe of it.”
As special as the day in the nation’s capital was, Gibson said that it did not come without challenges, as there were numerous circumstances that nearly deterred activists from participating in the march. However, Gibson said there was very little that could have prevented it from happening.
“A lot of the buses were turned around,” he said. “There were situations that were put in place to try to suppress us because people knew what we were planning and many didn’t want it to happen. But we were determined. We moved full speed ahead and found a way through.”
Gibson graduated from Tuskegee University and began his career as an instructor at his alma mater. He went on to serve as director of the student union and associate director for student life at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff. In 1966, He became the first African American to be hired by the newly chartered College of DuPage, initially serving as director of campus life and retiring as executive director of business services in 1994. He said that education is an essential element in positive social activism.
“Think about the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. entered Morehouse College at 15 years old and was very young when he earned his Ph.D. He was a very intelligent man,” he said. “Education is basically the foundation of our cause.”
Gibson, who shared remembrances of King during a program earlier this year that marked the 50th anniversary of his assassination, said he feels as though students at the College are in the perfect position to help make a positive difference in society moving forward.
“In order to make a good cake, you must have good ingredients,” he said, referring to the support that COD receives from surrounding communities. “College of DuPage is in an environment with world-class high schools and the community has always supported it. The education at COD is superior because it puts its emphasis on the students.”
While Gibson acknowledges that much progress has been made in the push for equality, he said that there is room left for improvement and it is imperative that young people of all racial backgrounds lead the way. Gibson shared what he considers to be the most important lesson he learned from Dr. King, which is to lead with love.
“The greatest thing Martin taught me was that we should love one another,” he said. “Martin always told us that ‘I cannot love myself until I love you.’”