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Protesters head to D.C. to decry economic inequality

ProtestActivismBethlehem Steel

Civil rights veteran Helena Hicks had walked much of the route already, many years ago — decades before the nation's capital memorialized the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in stone. Some things have changed dramatically since then, others not so much. So Hicks took to the streets once more.

"We were marching then for jobs and equal pay," said Hicks, of Baltimore, referring to her participation in King's historic demonstration more than 48 years ago, which brought about a quarter of a million people to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to hear the civil rights leader declare his "dream" of equal opportunity.

"That was August 1963 and here we are again," she said Saturday.

Hicks joined a group of about 50 marchers at a rally in downtown Baltimore. They headed to the old Read's drugstore building on the west side — the site of an early sit-in against racial segregation — and some of them proceeded to U.S. 1, on a 41-mile walk to the capital.

The group hoped to arrive Monday, when members expected to hold a rally with the "Occupy" movement.

Along the way, group members hoped to draw attention to their protest against an economic and political system that they say produces too much war, too many jails, too many advantages for the rich and too few jobs.

Hicks, 77, who challenged racial segregation in the 1950s at Read's and at businesses along U.S. 1 south of Baltimore, was among the activists who gathered Saturday afternoon at Union Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue. White and black, people in their 20s and some in their retirement years arrived to take up picket signs and banners and head into the cold.

"There's a lot of energy in this room," said Asher Strauss, a 23-year-old man in dreadlocks and camouflage pants who is active in Occupy Baltimore, one of more than a dozen groups involved in the three-day march.

"I have faith in this new era," he told the group. "There's a lot of work to do and I think we can come together."

Participants included active and retired teachers, postal workers, veterans of the civil rights movement, an organized labor official, a former Maryland delegate and at least one homeless man.

"I'm here because I've had enough," said Tom Dodge, a member of the American Postal Workers Union who lives in Westminster. A former employee of Bethlehem Steel, Dodge stood up at the meeting before the march and decried the loss of American jobs to workplaces overseas.

"I'm not going to take it anymore," said Dodge, who carried a blue flag with a slogan in white: "Don't Give Up The Ship."

Fred Mason, president of the Maryland/DC AFL-CIO, said that King "was also about jobs, because jobs and justice go together. You can't have millions of people unemployed and have justice."

The numbers gathered for the march were hardly overwhelming, but former Maryland Del. Walter R. Dean Jr., who took part in sit-ins in the 1960s at the Hecht Co. department store restaurant, said: "This is how movements start — [with] small, dedicated groups. Next thing you know you have an army out there."

Hoisting signs that read "Jobs Not Jails" and chanting: "Martin's dream is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back," the marchers walked from the church to the old Read's drugstore, now a boarded-up building at the corner of West Lexington and Howard streets that's marked "Discount Center" in orange letters.

In January 1955, a group of students from what was then Morgan State College staged a sit-in at the Read's lunch counter. It was nearly a year before the bus boycott began in Montgomery, Ala., and five years before the more celebrated lunch counter sit-in at an F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C.

Hicks was part of the Read's protest, one of a group of seven, as she recalled it. On Saturday she was back at the spot, having been driven down from the church because she couldn't make the walk.

Picking up a microphone, Hicks taunted police officers who were gathering around and trying to get the activists to stay on the sidewalk so they wouldn't block traffic. Members of the group chanted, "No justice, no peace, no racist police."

First there were three police cruisers on West Lexington, then five, seven and finally 11.

"Fifty years ago when I came down here in the middle of segregation, they didn't have all these police down here," said Hicks, a petite woman in eyeglasses walking in the middle of West Lexington. Noting that a number of the officers were black, she said: "They have co-opted all these African-Americans to stop African-Americans from getting justice. You should be out here joining us."

The police waited it out. After about 15 minutes, the activists stepped back onto the sidewalk, the police got back into their cars, the marchers continued on their way.

Decades after the height of the civil rights movement, Hicks said she thought marching was still an effective way to dramatize a grievance.

"We are a visual society," Hicks said in an interview. "People need to see this is something that hasn't been resolved. It's a terrible black mark on this country."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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