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Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd he captivated at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963: ‘Somehow’ he declared, ‘this situation can and will be changed.’The Associated Press

Frankye Adams-Johnson lives in a bungalow on a quiet cul-de-sac in the northern part of Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. The green yard and towering trees behind her home hum with the sound of cicadas. The forest reminds her of where she grew up, in a rural hamlet set so far back in the woods that people liked to say you had to poke your way in and hunt your way out.

Fifty years ago, she was about to start her last year of high school, but she missed the first day of class. She was in court to face charges for marching in a civil-rights demonstration. It was one of her several arrests – and jail spells – over that long, hot summer, a time of growing protests and increasingly violent reprisals.

The highlight of the summer was a bus journey to the nation's capital – her first trip outside Mississippi – for what was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She was greeted by more people than she had ever seen: a quarter of a million. On the return trip, she remembers a palpable sense of liberation. "I felt that somehow we had achieved whatever this freedom meant, that it had been achieved there in Washington," says Ms. Johnson, now 67. "We had marched, we had listened to speeches, and we had been moved by the great Martin Luther King, Jr. … There was no question that we could come back here and sit at a separate anything."

Five decades later, the March on Washington is remembered most for the speech Dr. King delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, and its indelible concluding refrain: "I have a dream." Yet that soaring rhetoric tends to obscure the fact that his speech was not just a statement of aspiration but a concrete call to action.

"Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed," he declared.

Many did just that. Ms. Johnson returned to Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state, and the one with the highest percentage (37) of African Americans. So, too, did Ineva May-Pittman, a 29-year-old teacher from Jackson. Before long, they were followed by Owen Brooks, who was 35 that summer, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designing radar for the military.

They have taken part in a hard and uncertain struggle for equality, and now, a half-century later, offer a unique perspective on the progress it has – and has not – achieved. They never dreamed they would see an African American as president. But they hoped for greater success in eradicating social and economic inequalities, which have proved tenacious.

Recent months have delivered fresh defeats: the killing of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager who seemingly aroused suspicion just because of the colour of his skin; and a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – legislation passed in the wake of Dr. King's Washington triumph."It's a complicated picture," says Michael Klarman, a legal historian and constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School. "We pretty much obliterated Jim Crow laws" – which enforced segregation – "and restrictions on voting rights. On the other hand, we still have all of these vast differences."

Prof. Klarman sees a contrast between formal equality and something more substantive. A black person in the United States is "more likely to die early, get sick, get incarcerated, drop out of high school, and be unemployed" than a white counterpart, he notes. The black poverty rate is nearly three times that of whites; the homicide rate involving firearms is 10 times higher.

Much good has come on other fronts. The civil rights movement inspired a wider struggle for human rights that has benefited women, gays and other minority groups. But sitting in her living room, surrounded by family photos, Ms. Johnson can't help feeling disappointed. "I envisioned that our quality of life as an African-American people … would be better for more of us than the handful that it is," she says. "I don't want to put a damper on celebrating and commemorating. But I will just say there's still so much more we need to be fighting for."

From backwoods Pocahontas to New York – and back

The March on Washington was the largest civil-rights demonstration the United States had ever seen. Representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King was just 34 and one of several speakers (including A. Philip Randolph, a legendary black union leader, and John Lewis, then a student leader and now a member of the U.S. Congress). His speech concluded the rally – and its most famous words, in fact, were improvised, a departure from his prepared text.

Despite fears of possible violence, the march was orderly and peaceful. Afterward, event organizers met with president John F. Kennedy at the White House. The sheer size of the demonstration helped to generate momentum for two landmark pieces of legislation – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Voting Rights Act a year later.

Ms. Johnson remembers being in awe of the number of people, the tall buildings, the stately monuments. The most profound thing she heard was Dr. King's speech, resounding out over a sea of listeners. The other dominant voice, in her memory, was that of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who moved the crowd with her rendition of I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned and is often credited with prompting Dr. King to describe his dream.

On the return trip, Ms. Johnson travelled in a caravan of buses carrying young activists as well as church leaders. Their first stop in Mississippi was at dusk in Meridian, just west of the Alabama boundary: A mob pelted the buses and their passengers with eggs while chanting, "Niggers go home."

"We were so charged up that some great transformation had occurred," she recalls, adding that the mob seemed to say: "No matter what y'all heard, all that dreaming, whatever, you're still in Mississippi and segregation is the law here."

Tall and slender, with a drawl that betrays her rural roots, Ms. Johnson grew up in Pocahontas, about 30 kilometres north of Jackson, at a time when the town was sharply demarcated by race. Her father was a sharecropper and her mother worked as a maid for white families, always entering through the back door.

"I think I was born into the world with a mind that wondered about things," she says with a laugh. As a child, she used to daydream about things like white bread – "light bread, they called it" – which stood for a sign of richness, much like the paved road and picket fences in the white part of town. And she wondered how Jesus, always portrayed as white, and his Father could care about a black girl like her.

She also resented having to miss much of the start of school, which coincided with the cotton harvest, to help her relatives in the fields.

Fear always lurked at the edges of her community, she says, especially after the 1955 death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old killed in Money, Miss., for whistling at a white woman.

In the late 1950s, she moved to Jackson, where segregation also ruled – separate schools, separate libraries, separate water fountains, separate stores. As a teenager, she began to attend meetings for local members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at her godfather's house.

Despite her mother's pleas to stay away from "that mess," Ms. Johnson's activism increased. In June, 1963, the leader of the Mississippi NAACP, Medgar Evers, was shot dead in the driveway of his Jackson home by a white supremacist. The next day, Ms. Johnson took to the streets with hundreds of others. She was arrested and put on a truck, but then jumped down to pick up a notebook she had dropped; a nearby police officer drew his club and smashed it into her back, permanently injuring a nerve.

During her last year in college, Ms. Johnson decided to leave Mississippi. She spent the next 32 years in New York, where she taught English for two decades at City College. In the late 1960s, she explored more radical approaches, and for a time joined the Black Panther Party. Then, in 1999, she decided to return home.

One of her first stops was Pocahontas, whose scenic woods and meadows she had missed dearly. At first, the manager of the local general store welcomed her back. But when she expressed a desire to buy land in the area, his attitude, and that of other men in the store, changed dramatically.

Not long afterward, she took her young nieces to see where she had grown up, roaming on land she believed belonged to relatives. Spying a tree laden with juicy peaches, they picked a few, and suddenly a pickup truck carrying three white men drove up. "It ain't your folks' land," one said when she explained what they were doing. "It's my land."

His tone, together with the weight of history, produced "the one time that I was really, really scared years later," she says.

Other things were dispiriting too. She taught at Jackson State University, where most students are African-American, and discovered that some had trouble landing a job after graduating. The city's public education system does a poor job of preparing students for college, she adds. "The law says you can go to school anywhere you want, but your economics says differently.

"So, those things I do question a lot – about how much got changed since 1963."

She worries that economic cleavages are more deep-seated than racial ones. Recently, she and her husband celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at an upscale restaurant in downtown Jackson, something unthinkable for prior generations of her family.

"I'm accepted there because, you know, if you come in there, you must be a black person of social status," she says. "It's very much a class thing now."

From segregated Jackson to boasting it's 'a city with soul'

Ineva May-Pittman remembers people were moved to tears as Dr. King delivered his speech in "that magnificent voice of his." One young black man was so touched he was "just cryin' like a baby."

"I just felt – free," she recalls, laughing. "With all these people from all across the country and the world, of all ethnicities, together – no incidents or anything, and everybody was friendly toward each other."

The experience raised a simple question. "Why can't this be, you know, all the time? So we had to come back and double our determination to try to make it be. And we still workin' on it." She lets out a short chuckle. "We still workin' on it."

In sensible shoes and a patterned dress, Ms. May-Pittman still looks like a teacher. For 30 years, she taught first and second grade, starting in 1956 when Jackson schools were still segregated. She risked her job to join the NAACP. The changes she has witnessed are so dramatic that she feels compelled to point them out. The city now has a black police chief and school superintendent. A passing fire truck reminds her that the fire chief is black. One of her former students is now a judge; another is mayor of a neighbouring town.

Black voter registration and election turnout now matches or exceeds that of whites and, to lure tourists, Jackson – home to 175,000 – advertises itself as a "City With Soul." And yet Ms. May-Pittman makes clear the journey is far from over, and offers to show me some important sites related to the local struggle for civil rights.

We pile into her slightly battered cobalt Kia and drive down Farish Street, once the heart of the black business district. Most buildings are abandoned, but the storefronts are neat and some freshly painted, spruced up for visitors who come to see the historic buildings, such as the Alamo theatre and the former home of pioneering blues label Trumpet Records.

One of the few surviving businesses is the Big Apple Inn, a slender restaurant that has served its signature pig-ear sandwiches for seven decades (very tasty). Nearby is Jackson's first public school for black students, built in 1894 and now the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, devoted to African-American history.

At one point, without warning, Ms. May-Pittman peels into a parking lot and peers up through the windshield. "Is that flag there?" she asks, pointing at the roof of the Marriott hotel. She bought a ticket for a benefit there the previous Friday night, but then informed the management she would not attend if the state flag, now the only one that includes the old Confederate emblem, were still flying. It was taken down.

Over the years, Ms. May-Pittman has run for a seat on the municipal council on several occasions, without success (but had better luck with a campaign to rename the local airport in honour of Medgar Evers). While she welcomes Mississippi's crop of younger black elected officials – there are now about 1,000 in various levels of government – she worries that they can be co-opted. "They don't know the tactics; they don't know how they're being used."

She says the black community must be vigilant, citing the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating a key section of the Voting Rights Act: "It's subtle. Anything that they can do …to retard progress and say things that make you think you're all right, when you're not."

From Massachusetts to the Mississippi Delta

Owen Brooks likes to say he has lived two lives: one north of the Mason-Dixon line and one south of it. The surprise for him is which has turned out to be longer.

Born in New York and raised in Boston, he didn't experience Southern-style segregation while growing up, but two years after taking part in the March on Washington, he moved to Mississippi, where he has lived ever since.

For many years, he was an activist with a civil-rights and economic-empowerment group operating in what was considered the state's most downtrodden area – the Mississippi Delta.

Mr. Brooks has been drawn to progressive politics since his teens ("I couldn't get enough of that wonderful stuff," he says with a laugh). As a young man in Boston, he protested against the draft for the Korean War, only to have his mother – an immigrant from Jamaica turned patriotic American – force him to enlist.

He studied engineering at Northeastern University and received a master's degree in urban studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but activism called. By the time of the march, he was itching to leave his radar job. He remembers an uncomfortable bus ride to the nation's capital and being near the stage as Dr. King spoke. "I was so excited. This was a wonderful thing."

Mississippi required some getting used to. "I wasn't used to being followed, I wasn't used to oppression," he recalls. "I wasn't used to saying 'sir' to policemen or to white businessmen" – such as the car salesman who refused payment (in cash) when he wasn't addressed that way.

Now 85, with curly white hair in a small ponytail, he worries about a lack of political awareness among young people. "Sometimes it's hard to keep people alerted to the fact that the war ain't over. It's just a different battle we're fighting right now. But the war goes on."

He describes as "a disaster" the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, which will allow some Southern states to alter election procedures without clearing the changes with federal authorities.

The election of Mr. Obama was "a stellar achievement, nobody can deny that," Mr. Brooks says, but "it wasn't enough for us to lay down our sword and shield, so to speak. … We don't live in a colourblind society – ain't no sense in kidding yourself."

Shifting in his recliner, he searches for a way to sum up the past 50 years and turns to a baseball metaphor: "Any amount of perceptiveness will bring you to the realization that we're a long way from home.

"I don't know – have we made it to second base yet? Maybe. We certainly haven't made it to third. We're in the ball game."

Racial reckoning

U.S. justice is biased against black people (July, 2013)

Whites: 25 per cent

Blacks: 68 per cent

Confidence that police treat races equally (2008)

Whites: 42 per cent

Blacks: 12 per cent

Discrimination is a major factor in lower average education for blacks (2008)

*Whites: 32 per cent

Blacks: 64 per cent

Discrimination a major factor in lower black income (2008)

*Whites: 35 per cent

Blacks: 71 per cent

Discrimination is a major factor in higher percentage of blacks in U.S. prisons (2008)*Whites: 44 per cent

Blacks: 80 per cent

Black-white relations in U.S. will always be a problem

Whites: 44 per cent

Blacks: 26 per cent (1963)

Whites: 39 per cent

Blacks: 49 per cent (2013)

Black legislators in 11 former Confederate states

1965: 3

2009: 321

Unemployment (July, 2013)

White: 6.6 per cent

Black: 12.6

Household income (2011)

White: $55,412

Black: $32,229

Sources: Gallup, Bureau of Labour Statistics, U.S. Supreme Court, National Conference of State Legislatures, Census Bureau

(* Non-Hispanic whites)

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