President Barack Obama issued a proclamation declaring this February, National African American History Month, is highlighting the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's March On Washington. NY1's profiles of New Yorkers who took part in the massive civil rights demonstration begin with retired Judge George Bundy Smith, a former freedom rider who will never forget hearing King's "I Have A Dream" speech in person. NY1's Cheryl Wills filed the following report.
Retired Judge George Bundy Smith knows firsthand about the 1963 March on Washington, as he was there. Just weeks ago in Supreme Court, Smith was saluted by The Tribune Society, a judicial group, for his contributions to the civil rights movement.
In August 1963, Smith was a young lawyer for the NAACP Defense Fund. He took a crowded bus ride from New York City to D.C. and braved a long walk to the Lincoln Memorial.
"I was very energetic and wanted to be present," Smith says.
Born during the height of Jim Crow laws in New Orleans, Smith was outspoken about segregation and inequality and became a freedom rider during his time at Yale Law School. His bus was attacked and he was tossed in jail on May 24, 1961.
Refusing to back down, Smith was determined to make a statement by joining the throngs of Americans gathered to hear King's speech, which still resonates with him today.
"He also said that Americans of African descent had been given a bad check marked 'insufficient funds,' and I think even today I think there are 'insufficient funds,'" Smith says.
Fifty years later, Smith sees the March On Washington as a major turning point in the civil rights movement that fueled his passion for justice.
Smith was appointed to the New York City Civil Court in the mid-1970s and moved on to associate justice of the Supreme Court until1992.
That same year, then-Governor Mario Cuomo appointed him to a 14-year term on the state Court Of Appeals.
Now retired and working pro bono for clients who he believes have been wrongfully convicted of crimes, Smith has a simple message for the next generation of lawyers and judges.
"Keep fighting and remember: we have your back," Smith says.