By Sarrah Peters/News Editor
In April of 1963, a Baltimore postman named William Moore set out to walk from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., on U.S. Hwy. 11 in the hopes of delivering a letter he had written to the Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett protesting the state’s racial inequality.
Moore never made it. He was shot and killed near Reece City in Etowah County. A local Ku Klux Klan member was suspected in his death and arrested but not indicted.
Outrage over Moore’s death fueled protests, and inspired Robert Avery, only 14 years old at the time, to become involved in the local civil rights movement.
“We had protests,” said Avery. “We did picketing at local businesses. We did marches through downtown.”
Avery and other protesters faced backlash for the demonstrations they participated in.
“I was arrested I don’t know how many times,” said Avery. “But I know I was arrested three times in one day. Being a juvenile, they couldn’t keep you in jail.”
Avery said that organizers were aware of this, so they utilized a lot of young people in the marches.
In August of 1963, Avery, now 15, and two friends, Robert Frank Thomas, 18, and James Foster Smith, 17, decided to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. With only $10 between them, the youths didn’t have the money for bus tickets, so they decided to hitchhike.
The group first had to talk to their parents. Both Thomas and Smith’s parents were reluctant about the trip.
“We told my mom what we were going to do, and she said ‘okay, be careful,’” said Avery. “Remind you, I’m the youngest in the group.”
The group started off on Sunday, August 18, 10 days before the march was to begin, and ended up traveling along U.S. Hwy. 11 for the first stretch of traveling.
“When we started out and went up Hwy. 11, we got to the spot where William Moore was killed,” said Avery. “We stopped at the spot and had a prayer, but from that point forward, nobody got tired and nobody was afraid. It was just inspiring once we got to that point.”
Shortly after that point, the group received its first ride from a Greyhound bus driver concerned for their safety.
“When we told him what we were doing, he said ‘Ya’ll are crazy. Do you all know where you’re at? You need to get on this bus,’” said Avery.
The bus driver took the boys up to Chattanooga.
The youths received many more rides along their journey.
“All of our rides from that point forward were from whites, with the exception of the last ride we got,” said Avery. “The last ride we got, right outside of Lynchburg, Va., was a black couple, and they took us all the way into D.C.”
On Wednesday, August 21, Avery’s group arrived in Washington, D.C., at about 3 a.m. with only about 35 cents left. They knew no one and did not know where to go. Eventually, a police officer helped them find the NAACP headquarters, which led to finding a phone number for Rev. Walter Fauntroy, a civil rights activist and one of the march’s organizers, that they called in the middle of the night. After some convincing that it was a legitimate call, Fauntroy made arrangements for the group to stay at a local YMCA for the night.
“We were the first people to arrive,” said Avery. “We were there for a whole week.”
The next day, the boys were put to work in headquarters making signs for the march for $3 a day.
“I claim I touched every last one of those signs,” said Avery. “I stapled them together, and the night before the march we had to load them on trucks and take them out to the parade grounds. With that, I say I’ve touched them all one way or the other. We put together thousands of signs.”
On the Saturday before the March on Washington, Avery and his friends were checked on by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the request of one of the three boys’ parents whom he had met on a trip to Gadsden shortly before arriving in Washington, D.C. Avery said King came to headquarters to convince the march organizers to allow him to speak. The march organizers had been concerned about allowing King to speak because of the many threats to his life that had been received. King convinced them in the end, and he made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
After the March on Washington concluded, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin bought the three boys bus tickets to return home.
Because of the boys’ early arrival and unique journey, the group received a lot of media coverage in Washington, D.C. In 2013, former President Barrack Obama came across Avery’s story while researching the March on Washington for its 50-year anniversary. He shared the story in a speech at the 2013 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Phoenix Awards Dinner.
“As I was preparing my speech for the anniversary last month, I was doing some research, reading some stories about people who had come to the march 50 years ago, and I came across the story of a young man named Robert Avery,” said Obama during the speech. “And Robert was 15 years old in 1963, so he and two friends decided to hitchhike from Gadsden, Alabama to the March on Washington…Seven hundred miles later, the boys from Gadsden reached their destination. They marched with Dr. King. And it left a mark on them. And afterwards, Robert went back home to Alabama, and he’s now spent the last three decades on the Gadsden City Council.”
Avery was one of the first black city council members in Gadsden in 1986, when Gadsden’s government changed to a mayor and city council format. Avery won his election for District 3 outright, but another black representative, William Cunningham, was elected after a runoff vote was held.
“He was district one, so he was sworn in first,” said Avery.
Avery served until 2002, when he ran for mayor for the second time. His first bid for mayor was in 1974. In 2006, he was re-elected to the city council, where he served another eight years, until 2014.
In his 2013 message, Obama called on others to remember why they run for public office and to be as courageous as 15-year old Robert Avery.
“We may not have hitchhiked across the country, but everybody, at some point, we felt that same tug, that same voice in our heads telling us, stand up, speak out, try to make a difference, remember what you know to be true, what you know to be just, what you know to be fair, and be willing to fight for it, and don’t be timid about it,” said Obama. “And maybe sometimes it’s not going to work out right away, but if you stay at it again and again and again and you do not waver, eventually we make a difference. That’s important. Because while all our challenges are different from the ones faced by previous generations, we’re going to need the same courage of a Robert Avery, or a Bayard Rustin, or a Joyce Ladner — all those marchers from 50 years ago — the same desire to get involved, the same courage to make our voices heard, to stand up for — whether it’s quality health care or good education or our children’s safety or equal opportunity.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series that will highlight Black History Month in Etowah County.