Kathryn Riss, Piscataway, NJ

Norman Grieser was my father. In 1963 I was Kathryn Grieser, a 16-year old high school student, and an active member of CORE in Washington, DC. I thought it outrageous that blacks and whites didn’t have the same rights and that the District had NO home rule, no elected officials at all, and was “represented” in Congress by white bigots from the South. I got started in politics as a member of High School Students for Better Education, which lobbied Congress not to cut our school budget! When the Civil rights movement heated up, I was eager to get involved. As a minor, I wasn’t allowed to sit-in or Freedom ride, but I passed out literature, picketed, and marched and sang at demonstrations with the adults.

Since my parents were divorced, I was required to spend summers with my father and his second wife on Long Island, NY. When Dad learned that I was planning to take the CORE bus to Washington from Port Authority for the Big March on August 28th, he said, “No daughter of mine is going to be involved in any race riot!” I told him it wasn’t going to be a race riot, just a peaceful, non-violent demonstration. When he found that I was determined to go, he decided to drive me to D.C. himself rather than let me take the bus. So, the two of us drove down in Dad’s little red convertible. It was quite a sight to see the river of buses going down the NJ turnpike, all with Civil Rights banners on their sides.

Dad found a parking place on the tidal basin near the Lincoln Memorial, and we joined the march at the very end. I took a sign from the CORE people who were handing them out, but Dad wasn’t satisfied. He said, “I’ll make my own sign.” He turned a sign over, and on the blank side, drew two headstones, one white and the other black with “R.I.P.” on them, put an equal sign between them, and wrote underneath, “Why wait?” Dad was a career naval officer; he had been in WWII and Korea in the Seabees, so had seen a lot of death, although he never talked about it. I guess he thought death the great equalizer. (Dad died in 1995 and was buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery.)

In 1964, I joined the sit-in at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ to request that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party representatives be seated instead of the regular Mississippi delegation, who were all Dixicrats. Currently I am an elected Democratic Committee Woman here in Piscataway, NJ. supporting Barbara Buono for Governor.

How did I feel in 1963? It was a mixture of hope, worry and determination. We had lost Medgar Evers that June, and violence was escalating against Civil Rights workers in the South. There were good reasons to be afraid that we might be attacked by the police or bigots. There had been talk of shutting D.C. down with sit-ins to get the Kennedy administration to protect us. Jack Kennedy wanted people to be patient and content with gradual integration, which he hoped would avoid more violence. But we knew that the KKK and the White Citizens Councils wouldn’t give up their power unless forced to, and we were not willing to be patient in the face of massive injustices. So, we decided to all go to Washington to show our solidarity, unity and determination. And it worked! We got the Civil Rights Act passed the next year, and the Voting Rights Act passed the year after that. We got Federal Marshalls to protect demonstrators in the South desegregating Jim Crow establishments. We spoke truth to power and got power to do the right thing. Being a part of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement is the one part of my life that I can look back on with satisfaction and gratitude, because despite all the work still to be done and all the suffering that remains, we accomplished a good deal to make America more of what it should be – a land of freedom and justice for all.

Submitted: August 26, 2013

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