Pittsburghers remember the March on Washington

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Fifty years ago today, they were there.

Bill Strickland was at the front of the reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial. Deborah Friedman was way in the back of the National Mall, struggling to listen through a tinny sound system. James English had wandered out on his lunch hour during a summer job at the Department of Labor. Laurence Glasco remembers taking shelter from the sun near a stand of trees, while Sala Udin had secured a place on the grass so close to the memorial's steps that he got quite a shock when Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on the stage.

"I expected a huge man to walk out, and instead there was this short person who just bounded onto the stage. I remember thinking, 'Wow! He's not a giant, he's a little guy,' " said Mr. Udin, who was 19 at the time and studying mortuary science in New York City. "We'd waited all day, and it was really hot, the sun was beating down, there was no shade. But we forgot all about that when he started to speak."

Today, President Barack Obama will speak on the very spot where King delivered his great "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C. The president's speech caps a week's worth of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It was highlighted by a rally on the mall Saturday that drew thousands of people, including many Pittsburghers.

Half a century ago, a large delegation of Pittsburghers came on a special train -- the first one to arrive, relieving the fears of organizers who were being needled by reporters about the possibility of smaller-than-predicted crowds.

At 8:02 a.m. the first "Freedom Train" pulled into Union Station in Washington from Pittsburgh, immediately followed by more trains, and buses, and cars, depositing thousands and thousands of marchers. There's a photograph on display at the Newseum in Washington that shows a line of people, neatly attired in sundresses and coats and ties, walking toward a still uncrowded mall, the U.S. Capitol behind them in the haze. The leading marchers hold a banner aloft that says "W. Penna." "Pittsburgh Presbytery" reads another sign.

The official Western Pennsylvania delegation count was 1,100, a sizable number but still only a fraction of a crowd ultimately estimated at 250,000 -- "the greatest undercount in American history," U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a key civil rights activist, has said. The Mall, which can fit about 1 million people comfortably, was almost completely full that day.

"I don't think I had ever been in a crowd that large," said Debbie Friedman, who, at age 15, was taken to the march by her parents, both politically active in liberal causes and residents of Stanton Heights. "It was the first time in my life I'd ever had a concrete sense of being part of something huge like that, and the first time where I was in a crowd where the majority of people were black, not white."

Security was tight

There were predictions of violence -- Washington, Life magazine declared, was undergoing "the worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run." Most businesses closed, federal employees stayed home and there was a heavy, if discreet, security presence -- 4,000 riot troops near downtown, 15,000 paratroopers on alert.

They weren't needed. The group from Pittsburgh -- about 60 percent black, 40 percent white -- rode on the overnight Freedom Train with 23 marshals on it, "but there were no deportment problems to handle," reported Ingrid Jewell of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The young folks learned the words to marching songs during the night, and taught them to their elders in the morning."

Once on the Mall, the atmosphere was "part Sunday School picnic, part political convention, part fish fry," the New York Times' James Reston said. There were church groups munching on hot dogs, there were movie stars and folk singers -- Harry Belafonte, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Poitier, Bob Dylan and Marlon Brando. Opera star Marian Anderson, who had so movingly sung at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after segregation closed other venues to her, was stuck in traffic and arrived minutes too late to sing the National Anthem, which left her in tears (she sang a gospel song later).

The march wasn't King's idea, but that of A. Philip Randolph, head of the first black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who had advocated marching as early as 1941. But his dream was deferred over the years as presidents took tiny, incremental steps to forestall rebellion, forbidding discrimination in federal jobs and housing -- executive orders with little power over the private sector.

By 1963, after several years of lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides on buses, marches and brutal pushback by police in the South, King, Randolph and other civil rights leaders knew what they wanted: a civil rights bill, desegregation of schools, a $2 minimum wage, a federal job-works program and prohibition of unfair employment practices.

It was a long list, but on this hot, hazy day, there would be no unrest. As speaker after speaker took the stage to talk, or sing, or entertain, a pleasant buzz settled over the crowd.

The high spirits and enthusiasm, and the lack of nonviolent resistance, "wasn't just a welcome relief," said Mr. English, a lawyer who served as secretary-treasurer of the United Steelworkers until his retirement in 2009. "It told the people of Washington and in the country that those supporting the civil rights were very much in control of what they were doing. It told the country they were not to be feared but to be respected."

A volatile summer

In spring 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., demonstrators against segregation in public facilities, restaurants and stores were met with police dogs, cattle prods and high-pressure water jets. On June 11, George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block the admission of two black students, before being forcibly carried away -- by pre-arrangement in a deal with Kennedy officials-- by the National Guard. That night, President John F. Kennedy went on television to make a passionate argument for passage of civil rights legislation.

Kennedy had come a long way from 1961, said Harris Wofford, the former Pennsylvania senator, who served early in Kennedy's term as special assistant for civil rights and later was instrumental in forming the Peace Corps. He recalled one meeting in 1961 he had arranged with King and the president, in the personal quarters of the White House.

"It was one of the best conversations between two thoughtful concerned people I've ever seen," said Mr. Wofford, in an interview from his home in Washington, who watched while the president explained to King why he didn't have political support in Congress -- yet -- to introduce civil rights legislation. King, he said, understood.

After they walked out of the White House, Mr. Wofford said, King mused about three qualities that make a great leader -- intelligence, political skills and passion. "He told me, 'Kennedy's definitely got the first two. We'll have to see how he does on the passion.' "

Two years later, Kennedy made good on the third requirement, with the televised speech the night of the University of Alabama incident.

By August, Congress still hadn't acted, and the president was, "along with all of us, worried that a march would could get out of hand and set back the efforts underway to get the legislation passed," Mr. Wofford said.

Laurence Glasco, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, was a graduate student in Buffalo at the time and went with a group from Dayton, Ohio. He remembers a high school friend called him up, "terrified. 'Are you people going to take over Washington and overthrow the government?' " he asked. "There was a lot of worry about violence."

When the 16-year old Bill Strickland, a North Side resident, arrived in Washington, he was shocked and thrilled by what he saw; "It was like a city, tents everywhere, every race, every complexion in the country was there, every twist of the ideological spectrum was there."

In Pittsburgh, the civil rights movement was stirring. Mr. Strickland remembers being involved in efforts to desegregate the Sully Pool in South Park in 1963 and going to the march "was the best way I could show I was committed to Dr. King's mission."

Some civil rights leaders weren't buying it. Malcolm X, who boycotted the event, called it the "Farce on Washington," a falsely optimistic display of racial harmony. Ralph Proctor, then a Pitt student who founded the University of Pittsburgh's NAACP chapter, refused to go, "out of protest," he said.

"Many of us on the militant edge of the civil rights movement opted not to go," he said. "It sounded like they were saying to us, 'You can have this parade, but get out of town by nightfall.' "

Mr. Proctor, now 74 and professor of ethnic and diversity studies at Community College of Allegheny County, had headed south in the late 1950s to join the movement. He was repeatedly beaten and arrested, thrown in jail, shocked with cattle prods.

"I was full of seething anger," said Mr. Proctor, who had grown up in gangs in the Hill District. "The final straw was seeing a black woman knocked down by a cop and held down with a knee to her neck, someplace in Mississippi. I snapped and went after the sheriff, and the organizers said to me afterwards that I had become a liability because I was so angry. 'We think you have lost the feel for nonviolence,' they said, and told me to go back home to Pittsburgh. And they were right.

"Still, I saw a great deal and it changed my soul."

That speech

King came on at 3 p.m., the last of 10 speakers, to deliver what would be considered the greatest American speech of the 20th century, although not everyone knew it then.

"The sound system wasn't that great," said Ms. Friedman of Squirrel Hill. "I really couldn't hear what he was saying. My 15-year-old self was not totally focused on the content of the speech anyway -- it took me a couple of weeks or months to appreciate the mastery of it."

King, consumed with logistical planning for the march, had written last-minute, finishing at 3:30 that morning. His trembling, soaring "I Have a Dream" refrain wasn't in the final, prepared text. But as he began to finish, he paused -- and instead of urging the crowd to "go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction," King put the text aside and, extemporaneously, began to speak of a "dream."

The idea ???just came to me,??? he later wrote, although one of his aides, Clarence Jones, said King began to improvise after gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out ???Tell them about the dream, Martin!???

The president, who was watching it live on television, "was elated," Mr. Wofford said, and met with the march's organizers in the White House immediately afterward.

Mr. Strickland said he suddenly felt "that this was a man I wanted to be like. He didn't exude any fear."

Not even out of high school, Mr. Strickland knew he'd found his life's work. Five years later, he founded the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and today is president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corp., an internationally acclaimed adult education training, arts and social enterprise center on the North Side.

Mr. Udin sat there, stunned. "It was the speech that answered my question as a 19-year-old about what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Then and there I decided I wanted to join the movement." He would leave mortuary school, return to his home in the Hill District and, in 1965, would go to Mississippi to work with the Freedom Democratic Party, enduring dozens of arrests and beatings.

Mr. Udin almost got killed but went on to become active in Pittsburgh theater, a member of Pittsburgh City Council and later the head of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership's Pittsburgh chapter.

Mr. Glasco remembered the pin-drop silence in the huge crowd, and that he cried.

And, after he returned home to Ohio, he remembered his once-skeptical father's words.

"He was impressed by the march and thought it might have some impact. He said, 'If we can desegregate Mississippi by the year 2000, that will be really something.' "

nation - region

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1949; on Twitter @MackenziePG. First Published August 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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