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Robert Treadway: McCann was witness
to poor peoples’ March on Washington

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s March on Washington, which in that hot summer of 1963 saw thousands of protestors of all races congregate in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to protest racial injustice and to hear Dr. Martin Luther King tell them about his dream for America. In February of 2012, during Black History Month, I wrote a three part profile of Lexington photographer Calvert McCann, in which I recounted his own experiences at that march. Let’s revisit those experiences.

Calvert McCann was a young black college student who had developed an interest in photography while working part time at Michael’s Camera Store in downtown Lexington while he was in high school. So, when he and his friends demonstrated or sat in at a lunch counter, he had his camera with him. The fact that no one else was taking pictures of these events made Calvert Lexington’s accidental historian of the civil rights movement. Calvert’s passion for civil rights took him far from Lexington, and his service in the Peace Corps in Africa took him further still.


Calvert McCann (KyForward file photo)

I have spent hours talking with Calvert about his experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. Calvert had a good seat near the front, when Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech as the center point of the march on Washington.

“I had fallen asleep,” Calvert told me. “We had walked a long time, and it was hot, and I probably hadn’t had much sleep, but when he said, ‘I have a dream,’ I woke up!” Thinking about that march on a hot day in August of 2013, 50 years later, gives some perspective on the heat and the crowds and the dust.

“I still remember the heat to this day,” Calvert said. “And all the people. We thought it was a glorious occasion, and it was.”

Calvert still talks about his awe of Dr. King and of the words expressed that day. He joined the national civil rights movement at a time when it was dangerous to espouse civil rights in the South.

Calvert traveled with Dr. King and his right hand man, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, from Louisville, where Dr. King’s brother, the Rev. Michael King, was pastor, to Montgomery, Ala., where King famously marched from the Edmond Pettus Bridge into Montgomery itself. They had a harrowing flight to Montgomery. “The plane had trouble, and they thought they were going to have to make an emergency landing, and Dr. King and the Rev. Abernathy, and everyone, were on the floor praying,” Calvert said, “And I was, too!”

When they got there, it wasn’t much better. “They had their Confederate flags on their uniforms,” Calvert said of white Alabama national guardsmen sent to “protect” the marchers. “One of them pointed his rifle right at me, and mimicked pulling the trigger.”

Calvert wasn’t just a participant in these events, he was their historian, through his photographs, which in Lexington were often the only photographs of protest marches and events. In my series of articles about him, I referred to him as Lexington’s accidental historian.

Calvert’s interest in photography began at an early age. He used to crack me up with stories of setting up a photo darkroom with his brother in their home’s one bathroom. Which didn’t sit well with his sisters. “Oooh, they would scream,” Calvert laughs. “‘Let us in, let us in!’ And we would say, ‘Another 30 seconds in the solution!’ We had to keep it dark while we worked with the film and paper.”

Calvert honed his darkroom skills at Michael’s Camera Store in downtown Lexington. Michael’s was a full-service photo processor, and ironically, often processed black and white film for the Herald and Leader, whose offices were nearby. Calvert learned to use the film developing machines in the back, and to make prints from the negatives.

Calvert bristles to this day at the discrimination he faced at work. He worked in the back of the store, doing darkroom work, while the white college students hired for the summer waited on customers in the front. “Occasionally they’d let me wait on a customer, but not much,” Calvert said. “They were afraid white customers wouldn’t want to hand money to a black person.”

It wasn’t an issue of anyone’s questioning Calvert’s honesty; at the end of each shift, the manager would sack up the cash received during the day, and give it all to Calvert to drop in the night depository on his way home. “I left there with ALL the money every day, and they wouldn’t let me take a dollar bill from a white customer.”

That night deposit almost got Calvert into trouble once. “We always dressed up for these protest marches, because we wanted to look good, to be respectable,” Calvert said, “so after work, one night there was going to be a protest, I rushed straight home to change clothes and forgot to make the deposit.” Calvert had left the money at home.

“All I could think about was that money sitting at home,” Calvert remembered. “I thought they’d think I had stolen it if it didn’t end up in the bank by the next morning.” Luckily his father, James McCann, found the money, and made the deposit, with no one the wiser.

Calvert joined the newly formed Peace Corps. “We were very excited to be the first group of Peace Corps volunteers to go to Nigeria,” Calvert said. Perhaps the biggest change for an urban American was the wildlife.

“Snakes,” he says, in that Indiana Jones tone. “The snakes would come up through the bathrooms.” One day a cobra came up through his bathroom, and into the house. “That thing reared up with that big hood, and I about made a new door in the house.” The bugs were big, too. “Spiders, giant centipedes, you name it. You know, the biggest reason people panicked and left early was the bugs.”

Bugs aside, the experience gave him an appreciation of African nationalism that informs his views to this day. His view of the aftermath of colonialism led him to study sociology when he returned to Kentucky, and to work as a social worker for the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, from which he retired.

Calvert is not in good health these days, because of a tumor the size of an orange removed from his brain two years ago, and lives in a nursing home. Even there he is famous, though: He has been inducted into the home’s hall of fame.

Calvert and I have discussed the March on Washington many times, and I am always struck by Calvert’s hope. Whether facing segregationists in Lexington, institutional racism on the national level or the effects of colonialism on Africa, Calvert tries to live Martin Luther King’s dream every day, a dream that gives a hope for an America in which persons are truly not judged by the color of their skin, a dream Calvert has waited a lifetime to see.

Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.

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