Local woman recounts family's history of political activism

By Sabrina Squire - bio | email

Posted by Colby Rogers

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Inaugural festivities "officially" kick off Sunday in D.C. with a star-studded gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's. "I have a dream" speech.

The event comes on the eve of the King holiday.  For many, this inauguration is a realization of King's dream and for one local woman,  it means the continuation of a family tradition.

Betty Waller Gray's treasured keepsakes chronicle major events in America's social, racial and political coming of age.

"Medgar Evers was killed the night of my senior prom," Gray said. "Ever since I've been knee-high to a duck, I've been involved in civic associations and political activity because it's what my mother did."

Betty, her sister and their widowed mother first marched into history in the summer of 1963.

"The march was August the 28th," Gray said. "I actually have the ticket stub from that bus trip which cost $4 per person."

Gray's family joined an estimated crowd of 250,000 at the Lincoln Memorial.

"Lena Horne in boots, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Burt Lancaster and James Baldwin were there," Gray said.

Gray says she can still remember King's historic speech.

"It was exciting just to be there," Gray said. "I don't think at that time I realized the historical impact."

Gray says the march fueled  her spirit of activism.

"I actually participated in some of the picketing and sit-down strikes here in the Richmond area," Gray said. "You couldn't sit down and eat, you had to stand up. Blacks could not sit down."

Betty's crusades took her back to Washington for several King anniversaries. Her daughter joined her in 1993.

"I can't really grasp what she had to live through," Leonetty Gray said of her mother's life, "but just through her stories, I can appreciate where she came from and where we are today as a people."

Barack Obama's win of the presidential election was the realization of a dream, Betty Gray says.

"When I knew he had won, I just got on my knees and thanked the Lord," Gray said. "We have reached the mountaintop"

On Inauguration Day, both mother and daughter will celebrate together in Washington.

Betty Gray plans to record her family's political activism for a book. She'll  begin work as soon as she returns from the inauguration.

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