BAR HARBOR—Lucy Witt says it is hard not to attend local marches and rallies in support of Black Lives Matter. The 88-year-old Bar Harbor resident, formerly of Washington, D.C., attended the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“There were very few white people at the march,” she remembered. “I feel so encouraged and so hopeful that now you look at the marches and there are as many white people as Black people. I look at the strides that we’ve made.”
Witt said the strides toward racial justice have been both forward and back, but overall, she said, “We are moving.”
Witt grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., attending Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland. “Washington, D.C., was totally segregated,” she said. “Buses and streetcars, schools, churches, movie theaters: everything was segregated.”
Witt said she grew up not knowing or socializing with any Black people until she joined an interracial student group organized by ministers from area churches. Students from Witt’s high school were invited to meet with students from Wilson High School and Dunbar High School, the elite white and Black high schools in the District of Columbia.
The group met at the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street in the district, which was “the only place you could have interracial gatherings,” Witt said. “It was known for that.”
The group of students met regularly to hear speakers and have discussions on topics such as slavery and segregation. One day that sticks out in Witt’s mind, the speaker didn’t show up, and the students had what Witt calls an “ad hoc conversation.”
The conversation ranged from college expectations to parents to dating. When one Black girl asked, “Is it okay to kiss on a first date?” Witt was struck by the universality of the teenager experience across racial lines. “We’re scared of the same things,” Witt remembered thinking. “It was really a transforming moment for me.”
Another experience that sticks out in Witt’s mind was when the group collected toys to donate to a Christmas toy drive. The drop-off location was a D.C. radio station, and the students took a bus there. “The group of us went to the back of the bus, because that’s where the Black kids had to sit,” Witt said. “I sat next to Timmy, who was Black.” The bus driver, seeing them sitting together, pulled the bus over and told the group to get off.
Witt started to argue, pointing out there was no law preventing them from sitting together on the back of the bus, while the other students escorted her off the bus. When they were all on the curb, Witt remembers the other students telling her, “Lucy, you go home to Maryland at night. We don’t. We’re not going to make a scene.”
That was how Witt learned firsthand about white privilege. “I can’t refuse it, I can’t not have it,” Witt reflects. “I really think that the experience of being in that group was very life changing for me.”
When she was old enough, Witt left suburban Maryland and moved to Washington, D.C. “I lived downtown,” Witt said. “I know what it’s like to be a minority and I found it an enriching experience.” She worked at different times at a hospital, the Veteran’s Administration and the Smithsonian while being active in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.
In the 1950s, Witt said, residents of the District of Columbia, the primarily Black district that was not a state and was under the jurisdiction of Congress, could not vote. Witt worked to support Black organizations trying to get legislation passed for voting rights, which happened in 1961 with the passage of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution.
In the 1960s, Witt was involved in fair housing initiatives. “I was paired up with a young Black woman,” Witt remembers. The two of them would go separately, one after the other, to apply for apartments. Witt would be told there were apartments available. Later when the Black woman applied, she would be told there was a waiting list. This information was used to prepare a lawsuit, which Witt said was settled out of court.
After attending the March on Washington in 1963, Witt volunteered to help people get to Selma, Ala., for the protest marches held in 1965. “People going to Selma had to go through Washington by train,” Witt explained. The predominantly white ticket sellers were not helpful, Witt said. Racism, she said, “was so deep and widespread. You can’t imagine how total it was.”
Witt and other volunteers set up a way station, she said, to accompany travelers to the ticket counter to help them buy the right tickets to get to Selma.
“I’m thankful for the experiences that I’ve had,” Witt reflected. “Some of it was hard.” In the 1960s, when the Black Power movement gained momentum, focusing on racial pride and self-determination, Witt said, “I felt left out, and I was hurt at first.” But that taught her important lessons.
“I realized that you can’t give someone else power,” she said, “because with the gift, you’re acting out power.”
At 88, Witt said she still hears the call to action. “I’m not bolting out the door anymore,” she said. “I can’t stand for hours. I am not doing anything, and it’s very hard.” But she likes what she’s seeing out there from activists, who she said are “getting more sophisticated now” with how they do things.
“We are moving slowly, but not yet at Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community,’” Witt said. “But we’re almost there.”