March on Washington: The day that changed history

Readers share their experiences at the March on Washington 50 years ago

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On a humid August day 50 years ago, they all felt a tug to go.

Whether because of disgust over the police treatment of peaceful demonstrators in the South or a sense of moral obligation or civic duty, many left small children with relatives and boarded buses or crammed in cars to head to Washington, D.C., for what would become one of the most important gatherings in history. They didn't know if they'd face violence or arrests on the Washington Mall, but they had to be there. All say the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom touched their lives in a special way and in some cases influenced their careers or actions in years to come.

Here are their stories:

Speakers, Lena Horne, Rembrandt

To have three generations of my family at this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is a gift from God. I went to the original march when I was 22 years old -- married with two young daughters, who I left behind -- and now I'm going again with my daughter Dorcas and granddaughter Christiana, who live in Orlando and will meet me there.

The first time I was with my sister Phyllis Moorman Goode and several of our childhood friends from Swissvale and Braddock. I was passionate about not wanting to live in America as a second-class citizen, and I felt this kinship with oppressed people throughout the world. I felt my human rights were being violated in my own country.

I was less enthusiastic about nonviolence. I did not want to turn the other cheek though, and I could see the potential power of nonviolence as an agent of societal change.

It was a very, very hot day. When I arrived at the march and blended into the crowd, I felt I was being sheltered, protected in the bosom of all the people who were there. I was standing next to Lena Horne. She was more petite and browner than I had imagined she would be. She was dressed simply. Our eyes met. She knew that I recognized her and that I respected her anonymity!

I remember sitting on the bleachers as the crowd dispersed, waiting as my sister Phyllis talked with many of the dignitaries on the podium. This foreshadowed the many occasions I would find myself waiting as my sister talked with prominent people! [Phyllis Moorman Goode, a longtime civil rights activist and community volunteer in Pittsburgh, heads the Multi-Cultural Arts Initiative of The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.]

Later that day, we went to see a Rembrandt painting at the National Gallery of Art. As I looked at the painting, I felt a connection to the soul of the artist who used light and shadow to illuminate the life essence of the people he painted. We almost missed the train going back to Pittsburgh, but on the way home I thought about how connected I felt. Connected to my sister, friends, the speakers, Lena Horne, the hundreds of thousands of people there at the March and Rembrandt.

Joyce Lee
West Mifflin

Busloads from Ohio

Aug. 28, 1963 was the day that Washington stood still and the nation was very frightened that a quarter of a million marchers were coming to the nation's capital. Even President Kennedy was concerned that the march would turn violent. Some media outlets drew comparisons to the World War I Bonus marchers, a group of jobless veterans who gathered in Washington during the Depression in 1932 to demand payment of a bonus Congress had promised them for their service in World War I, but a clash between the military and demonstrators turned violent.

My wife Thelma's parents, with whom we left our four little children, were afraid that we would not return home, leaving them to raise our children. Nevertheless, we organized five buses and a planeload of marchers from Cleveland/Youngstown, Ohio. We were under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, a civil rights leader known as the father of the March Movement.

I was a local union officer and president of the Youngstown-Ohio Chapter of the Negro American Labor Council, known today as the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. We were instructed by Randolph to maintain discipline and order. He appointed Bayard Rustin as the chief organizer of the march. Our marchers sang freedom and religious songs all the way to Washington.

Just before we arrived in Washington, a car backfired and frightened the lead bus driver. We had to threaten him before he would go on. In Washington everyone was very peaceful and friendly. The atmosphere was very loving and spiritual, contrary to what was predicted.

We marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where many national religious, labor and civil rights leaders spoke. The keynote address was Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Many marchers had tears in their eyes because they had heard one of the greatest American orations since President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

It's a pleasure to share my experiences 50 years after the march. That day forever changed American history.

Oliver R. Montgomery Sr.
Penn Hills; a vice president of the Allegheny County AFL-CIO and past president of the Penn Hills NAACP

An unexpected meeting

On Aug. 28, 1963, I marched on Washington responding to Dr. King's call for support of the civil rights movement. I was a 35-year-old minister of the United Church of Christ in East Hartford, Conn., and had met Dr. King the previous spring at a clergy gathering in Hartford.

I knew I had to go to Washington. I found my way to the Washington Monument and fell in line for the march. It was a very warm late summer day as I walked arm-in-arm with a rabbi and a Catholic nun. About halfway along the mall, near the reflecting pool, I heard my name being called from behind. Looking back I saw my cousin John from Ithaca, N.Y., bounding toward me. We embraced enthusiastically.

I asked him what moved him to come. "I had seen enough dogs attacking people and police shooting water cannons in Alabama," he replied.

We stopped for lunch by the reflecting pool. Sharing my "brown bag" with John, we sat on the grass listening to Dr. King's speech from the Lincoln Memorial steps. I saw Dr. King again at the Montgomery airport in Alabama some weeks later.

Our group from Hartford were en route to Selma, Ala., over 100 of us. Dr. King greeted us and thanked us for coming as he left for a speaking engagement.

Now I am 85, a retired pastor. My cousin John has gone to glory. I'm sure he has met Martin Luther King there!

The Rev. Roger S. Nicholson
West Deer

FREEdom! FREEdom! FREEdom!

We were young marrieds from New York City, supporters of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). We heard about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. We had a car so we picked up my teenage brother and two of our friends and drove south.

I think I'd never heard of Martin Luther King Jr. before we went. We didn't know whether there would be violence, arrests (like the dogs and fire hoses we'd read about that were turned on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala.). And I had no idea that Washington residents were mostly African-American.

But on the way, our spirits were buoyed by seeing school buses, church buses, New York City buses headed down along with us. We parked on the outskirts of Washington and began to walk.

Would the Southerners throw rocks and jeer? Instead, black families came out to look at us -- not marchers in formation, but hundreds and then thousands walking by their painted brick houses, pouring in to petition the Kennedy government for "redress of grievances."

We were a mass of humanity, black and white, Northern and Southern. I learned a chant: FREEdom, FREEdom, FREEdom, FREEdom FREEdom! from a group of young black people from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

I asked a white woman with a sign, D. C. D -- TS. She explained: "D.C. Democrats, or D.C. Doughnuts -- because residents of the district don't have the vote."

"But that doesn't have anything to do with this," I said.

"Yes it is, because the majority of D.C. residents are Negroes," she said.

Last month I saw a D.C. license plate: "Washington, D.C. Taxation Without Representation." Fifty years later!

In the 1980s I saw a poster: "Photographs From the Civil Rights Era." That stopped me. Weren't we still in the civil rights era?

Aren't we now?

Arlene W. Weiner
Squirrel Hill

Similar experiences

When I reflect upon the 50-year anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, I think about where I was before I went to the march. I was a sophomore at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. I was asked to return to East St. Louis, Ill. (my hometown), to ride on a bus with local residents to the demonstration. Three years earlier, I was one of six activists who participated in the desegregation of an all-white swimming pool in East St. Louis.

The long ride in an old Greyhound bus to Washington, D.C., was filled with stories and songs; it was my first trip to our nation's capital. The actual day of the demonstration was almost too much to comprehend. The setting of course was -- the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool, the enormous crowd, the singing (Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, etc.), the speakers, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, etc., and Martin Luther King Jr. topped it off with his "I Have a Dream" speech. My mind had such a sensory overload that I could not think about some of the demonstration's meaning until the bus ride home -- indeed it took days, months and years to grasp its full significance ...

While in Atlanta this past week at my family's reunion, I mentioned writing this essay to my son. We talked about the similarity of our experiences because he participated in the "Million Man March" of 1995. His trip was from Pittsburgh to Washington. In 2012, my wife and I took our grandchildren to D.C. to the Martin Luther King and Lincoln memorials. While at the Lincoln Memorial my grandson asked me where I was standing during the 1963 demonstration. I found a spot along the reflecting pool that in my mind was close to where I stood that day, and we took a photo. The memory of 50 years will be like yesterday -- all three generations had stood in the same spot.

Mose D. McNeese
Mt. Lebanon

From Corning to D.C.

In August 1963 I was a young pastor in Pittsburgh, directing the campus ministry of the Methodist Church. I had arranged for eight students to join me in a regional student Christian Conference near Corning, N.Y., that drew a total of 200 students and leaders. Our main speaker was a dynamic, young African-American, the Rev. Jim Lawson from California.

Even as a young pastor he was already a veteran in the civil rights struggle of the '60s. He was also a colleague of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The conference began on Monday morning, Aug. 26. In his opening address the Rev. Lawson said, "I accepted this invitation several months ago, before I realized that on Wednesday of this week there would be a March on Washington to challenge the nation on civil rights. I plan to be there and invite any of you to join me."

This caused quite a stir among the mostly white middle-class college students and staff.

Arrangements were quickly made for a chartered bus to leave for Washington on Tuesday evening, to arrive on Wednesday morning. Several of the students from Pittsburgh wanted to go, but I insisted that they contact their parents to get approval. I called my wife in Pittsburgh, home with our two young sons, Walter (3) and Roger (1). She readily supported me in the plan, although with some concern that the event might turn sour with conflict and potential violence. Three of the Pittsburgh students received parental approval, but some convincing was necessary. One student was not permitted to go. The others planned to stay at the conference.

By 1 p.m. Aug. 28 we joined the march to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a hot and muggy August afternoon. I found a shady spot at the side of the Lincoln Memorial. It was moving to hear the voice of Mahalia Jackson and then to hear that mellifluous voice of Martin Luther King Jr. share his dream with us and challenge us to help tear down the barriers of race and class.

He said, "1963 is not an end, but a beginning."

He would have been pleased to know that 46 years later a black man would be elected president of the United States -- still not an end but a step along the way.

On our trip back to New York we shared our stories and reflections with Jim Lawson on how people of faith might respond to the many challenges raised by the struggles for justice.

That experience set me on a path for more direct participation in efforts for a more just and peaceful society.

The Rev. Paul E. Schrading
now retired and living in Squirrel Hill, is the former director of the Wesley Foundation, the ministry of the Methodist Church for Pittsburgh-area colleges.

Dream not fulfilled

"You're not getting out of the car. You're the only white person here!"

This was the beginning of one of my most memorable times. At Mount Mercy College (now Carlow University) we were urged to work for social justice. Five of my friends and I made that trip for the Aug. 28 March on Washington, feeling we were doing just that.

My mother wasn't too keen on my going, but I left home with enough fried chicken and chocolate chip cookies to feed all six of us.

The day was hot and humid, the Washington, D.C., police were lining the way, the mall was crowded, the crowds were noisy, and the PA system was inadequate. It was hard to see the speakers, and harder yet to hear them. Yet we were thrilled to be there!

A high point was the New York Ladies Garment Workers Union, arriving late, marching through the vast crowds to the front, singing "We Shall Not Be Moved." I joined the singing as best I could through my tears.

Little did we know that Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech would echo over the years, and with such dignity. The "I have a dream" mantra was captivating as the pitch of his voice rose with each phrase. Dr. King, Medgar Evers and all the other civil rights martyrs were working for justice for all.

Aug. 28 is the 50th anniversary of the march. We know the "Dream" is not fulfilled. This 2013 March is the "National Action to Realize the Dream March." The issues today are the same: jobs, workers' rights, immigration, women's rights, environmental justice, LGBT equality ... Sound familiar?

When will the Dream be our society?

Bonnie Vojtek DiCarlo
Highland Park

The love of millions

My wife, Shirley, and I (both white) were joined by Jim Brown (who wasn't) and drove together from New Jersey to participate in the March on Washington.

I don't remember that the three of us stayed together but I do remember the aura of love that surrounded me. I also remember that the day was hot and enervating. A woman (white) in front of me had a seizure and from all around people with placards shielded her from the sun while someone sent for medics, who took care of her.

Jim suggested that we leave a bit early before the mob of traffic leaving would cripple our trip home.

As it turned out we missed being present for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech although we've all heard it -- in full or abridged versions -- any number of times since then.

What was unforgettable was that feeling of being enveloped by the love of millions of people.

If only I, no "we," could share that feeling universally.

Donald J. Gilbert
Mt. Lebanon

Ready for this march

When I look back on the March on Washington 50 years ago, I remember most of all the deep sense of optimism that I felt. I believed that racism was on its way out; of course I was much younger then and much more naive. Since then I have participated in other marches for civil rights and marches against war and believe that defeating racism is difficult -- and that it will take more dialogue, better gun laws and continued education to win.

My husband and I left our 11-month-old son with my parents. They could not understand why we were going on the march. We went to Washington on a bus organized from a small church in Norwin. Bob Strommen was the minister and a civil rights activist (and had married us two years before), and his wife Joyce, my best friend from college.

I remember talking and laughing and singing on the bus ride, and my surprise at the huge crowd as we shuttled the final leg into the city by subway. I remember walking arm in arm singing "We Shall Overcome," and Peter, Paul and Mary singing in front of the Washington Monument, and the sight of so many people when we arrived at the mall's reflection pool. Dr. King was far in the distance, but we could hear his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. So inspiring.

Now I've reserved a bus seat for the 50th anniversary March in Washington. I am much older but still excited. I still believe that we will overcome, but I know that it will take a little longer than I once thought.

Kay Wetzel
Regent Square

nation - lifestyle

First Published August 25, 2013 4:00 AM


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