Fifty years ago Sgt. Chris Hill of the Howell Police Department was a 3-year-old boy growing up in the township while Martin Luther King and other members marched to Washington DC for one of the major events of the civil rights movement.
A lot has changed in that time and on the 50th anniversary Sgt. Hill and a dozen teens from Howell traveled to the National Mall for what Hill called a “powerful trip,” to remember the events of that day. “When I heard about the civil rights march I started asking the kids questions about civil rights and realized they didn’t know much about it,” Hill said. “We started talking about how it was important not only for people of color but for everybody. Even women didn’t have the same rights as men then.”
When he mentioned taking the trip south Hill said he got “an overwhelming response,” for people who wanted to go and ended up bringing the first 12 who signed up. The group started their trip the day before to give the teens a chance to get to know each other and talk about what they were going to do. “Riding in the Metro was an interesting experience,” he said of the event day. “You have 12 kids from Howell and now they’re the minority in the DC area. They were taken out of their comfort zone.”
Going from the crowded Metro to the packed Mall made for an interesting experience for everyone involved. The Howell group originally started in a spot 100 yards from the stage but was eventually able to move up close and personal to the speakers including Attorney General Eric Holder and Rep. John Lewis who was at the first march.
Other speakers that day included Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and Hill said it was Sharpton who made the biggest impact on some members of the group. One of the teens in the group said they thought Sharpton’s message was mostly about negative things while others spoke positively about the changes. “I said some people think the only way to exact change is to talk about what’s bad,” he said. “We liked the other guys who talked about good things. We can’t forget about the bad because they happened, but we need to talk about the good.”
Over the course of his life in the township Sgt. Hill has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the civil rights movement but said there is no doubt that in that time things have changed for the better. “If it wasn’t for the civil rights movement Ronald Carter would never be chief and I would never be a police officer.”
He also said people like former Township Manager Helene Schlegel would never have had the opportunity to serve as the head of the administration had it not been for the women’s rights movement. “There were a lot of changes that affected a lot of people,” he said.
The trip to Washington not only served as a chance to be a learning experience for the people who went but will also shape the message for the Howell PAL for the year as a whole. “One of the things that are important is to be culturally aware,” he said. “You never want to not know. You never want to forget.”
One of the areas of focus for the group this year will be not only civil rights, but rights for everybody Hill said. “We’re going to talk about how things have changed for a positive and how these kids can now keep that positive momentum moving forward.”