By Almeda Girod
Nearly every American, and millions of people around the world, are familiar with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, yet most know little about the March on Washington at which it was delivered.
The U.S. National Park Service has estimated that a quarter of a million people gathered on the National Mall on August 28, 1963, to attend what is now known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was sponsored by Civil Rights organizations and intended to help prod Congress to pass President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill. Many felt that the law was weak and incomplete. The march was the inspiration of the then-74-year-old venerable labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, with activist Bayard Rustin, credited as the chief organizer.
Several Riderwood residents who attended the March met recently to reminiscence in the Overlook dining room.
Bill Muldoon and Levern Allen worked together at USAID and they, along with coworkers, took “a long lunch hour” to experience the event. Suzan Wynne, then a senior at Michigan State University, had returned from Europe the previous day. She took a train to Union Station, left her “stuff,” and headed to the March headquarters to train and deploy marshals. She adds “Bayard Rustin arranged buses for the volunteers, and along with Rustin, I ended up on the bottom of the steps in front of the podium where I had a terrific view of the sea of signs and bodies stretching out as far as the eye could see.”
Bette and Gene Martin were living in Columbus, Ohio, and active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and were so committed to the cause that they left their 9- month old son with Gene’s parents in Cincinnati and boarded a train to DC. They sang songs on the train all night and recall walking from Union Station to the Mall. Bob Tiller was a summer worker in DC after a year of graduate school. He remembers that others in his carpool did not go to work that day because they were afraid of violence.
Anne Riley was on duty as a plainclothes policewoman. Bette commented “I never saw so many police officers” and Anne added, “You did not see me since I was in an unmarked cruiser.” Bette adds that it was a hot day, the crowd was so well managed, and that folks dressed for the March “so we would not be taken as Hippies.”
Yvonne Payne lived locally and was driven to the event by her niece. She says that “the March gave me courage and some hope for the future.” Mae and David Dillon were newlyweds having recently moved from Rochester, New York. They had little exposure to people of color at the University of Rochester or earlier in their lives, and Mae recalls how calm and peaceful the mostly African-American crowd had been. Levern commented that the attendance of many had been arranged through Black churches.
Bob Merikangas was a teaching assistant at Catholic University and observed from a distance the “waves of people.”
Suzan highlighted the enthusiasm of the crowd, stating that they thought they could change the world, “by waving a magic wand.” Gene and Suzan shared a common upbringing with parents who were involved in unions and civil rights, and both assumed that everyone grew up with their parents’ values. Bette’s mother was a union member and single parent, who commented: “This is what I should have done 30 years ago.”
When asked if marches lost their impact, Anne said “Congress notices marches. They are interested in their bread and butter.” Noting how their activism affected their children, Levern commented: “Our kids grew up supporting causes that matter.” She recalls a large number of signs on the lawn of the Monument and that folks were encouraged to pick one up that reflected their persuasion.
The group agreed that they all had previously known of King and his association with non-violence, even though it is known that a national march was not on “his radar” and that he was not an organizer of the event.
Ossie Davis was the announcer from a stage in front of the White House introducing well-known folk singers, celebrities, and movement leaders. Bob’s best memory is of Peter, Paul, and Mary singing “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Recently, Gene and Bette were in the new Museum of African American History looking at a display about the March. Another younger visitor heard them and excitedly exclaimed: “You were there!!!” Gene said, “we felt like relics.” The Martins had fun telling that story to their family, especially to their son, Eric Rustin Martin, who was born in 1964 and named for Bayard Rustin.
The group agreed that the March was a joyful event and the vast majority of marchers seemed positive, even though they were participating in a major protest. People were polite and helped others cope with the humid conditions.
Others agreed with Bob who felt that the March experience served as a stepping stone as he was later involved in other causes, such as going to rural Mississippi and helping with voter registration. A comment made was “we became more bold.”