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Eastern Florida 'Freedom Rider' Recalls March on Washington

August 28, 2013 Update: Rosemary McGill appeared on NBC's Today Show on this anniversary date during the program's 9 a.m. EDT hour. She appears approximately seven minutes into the segment alongside a park ranger who helped protect Martin Luther King, Jr. that day 50 years ago.

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August 26, 2013 - The heat was oppressive that day but something else was far worse — the crushing weight of segregation that denied African-Americans their rightful place as citizens.

That’s why Rosemary McGill, then a 17-year-old high school student from Cocoa, went to Washington, D.C., and on Aug. 29, 1963, was a witness to history.

Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial with a quarter-million others, she heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring call for equality, telling Americans about his dream of a just, color-blind society.

“I changed that day, we all changed that day,” said McGill, a multicultural and legacy specialist at Eastern Florida State College. “It changed our hearts, our minds. We felt America was righting her ship.”

McGill’s memories are receiving national attention this week in media coverage of the 50th anniversary of King’s historic March on Washington and his “I Have a Dream” speech.

She is scheduled to be interviewed Wednesday on the “Today Show” on NBC and was featured in a story in Florida Today.

“The whole world was watching us,” she said. “It was like a mecca of people of all races, all religions and all beliefs. They were all there on one accord, for the same cause.”

McGill was a veteran of the civil rights movement long before the march.

She became a Freedom Rider in 1960 at age 15, riding buses with others and putting her life at risk to draw attention to the inequities in Florida and other states in the Jim Crow South.

She walked with King in St. Augustine, a city she described as “our Selma, our Montgomery” because of the violent opposition to integration there led by the Ku Klux Klan.

Staying true to King’s philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience, “we took the beatings, were bitten by dogs, attacked with fire hoses” without fighting back, she said.

Such scenes of brutality were shown on national TV, awakening the country’s conscience to the evils of American apartheid.

McGill recalls King as a “soft-spoken, very intelligent, normal kind of man” who had the ability to “say things that stirred your soul.”

He used that moral eloquence in Washington with these now famous words: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

“I cannot remember a time in my life when I felt so moved, so proud, so humbled as I did that day listening to Dr. King,” said McGill.

McGill worked for the city of Cocoa before coming to Eastern Florida State College six years ago to work as a multicultural specialist with the Moore Multicultural Center.

She is writing a book called “What Happened to the Guava Tree” that chronicles segregation in Brevard County from the 1920s through the 1960s.

It includes the early history of Brevard Junior College, which was founded in 1960 with a segregated separate school, Carver Junior College, for African-Americans.

The two schools merged in 1963 and moved to the present location of the Cocoa campus, becoming Brevard Community College in 1970 and Eastern Florida State College earlier this summer.

McGill hopes to publish the book soon and use it to teach today’s youth about the struggle that led to the multicultural America of today.