Win tickets to see the smash hit musical Mamma Mia at the Roanoke Civic Center. Two winners will each receive four tickets!
Sunday, August 25, 2013
The country was embroiled in civil rights issues in the early ’60s. It was a time of Freedom Riders, Malcolm X, Bull Conner and his dogs, churches blown up and civil rights workers murdered and missing. The pressure was building, but the solution was unknown.
On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy called for a Civil Rights Act. A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who had originally called for a march on Washington in 1941, called again for a new march on Washington.
Later that month, the call went out for a march on Washington for jobs and freedom. The major supporting organizations included civil rights, labor and religious organizations. The march was to be held Aug. 28, 1963. That was the day before my 20th birthday. It was also the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln.
The organizers asked for volunteers to help put the march together and monitor the crowd to prevent violence. I was working construction jobs and was no longer tied down at home. I boarded the train from New London to Washington, D.C., on the Tuesday before the Wednesday march.
We gathered on a field near the mall where a large circus-type tent had been erected. We worked to staple signs to wooden sticks for the marchers. The organizers gave mini-courses in what was to be expected during the march. Everyone was given classes in nonviolence.
The volunteers were from all over the country, but mostly from around the Washington-Baltimore area and East Coast cities. We were a racially mixed gathering of all ages, colors and persuasions.
That night when we stopped working, the volunteers were invited to a special performance put on by celebrities who supported the march. On that warm summer night, we were entertained by Peter Nero, Odetta, Tony Bennett and finally, Peter, Paul and Mary. The mood was electric, optimistic and trepidatious.
Each out-of-town volunteer had been assigned to a resident of Washington, D.C., who had opened up his home to us for the night. I stayed at the apartment of a State Department employee whose place was filled with artwork from all over the world, especially Africa. Two of us crashed for the night in his home, and he had absolutely no idea who we were. Sadly, I believe that was a time that cannot be duplicated today.
The day of the march was the most memorable day of my life. We helped put together more march materials in the morning and were given more training on nonviolence and what to expect during the day. The crowd formed near the Capitol to march down the mall to the Lincoln Memorial. The crowd kept growing, but there was no order to start the march. Everyone was waiting for the march leaders, but they were tied up meeting with members of Congress.
Finally, the march started without the leaders. The mob was simply too great to be corralled in one place and overflowed in the direction of the mall. A friend and I went ahead to get good seats right below the Lincoln Memorial. The crowd began to fill up the area, so we climbed up a tree for a clearer view of the speakers on the memorial steps.
We had just made it up a tree when a phalanx of policemen came through, clearing a path for a contingent of Hollywood celebrities. Directly under our tree came a star-studded mob of the famous: Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte, Charleton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Tony Bennett, Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman and many more.
We had the best seat in town! Yet as the crowd grew, we decided to try to get closer. We wormed our way to within 50 feet of the speakers’ podium. The program finally began, hours late, naturally.
Most know of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech. There were many others. There were musical presentations by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Mahalia Jackson and others.
On this most memorable day of my life, I knew before King’s speech was over that it would be famous. With the words — “Free at last, free at last!”— the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I had goosebumps all over. The speech brought tears of hope for me as well as many others in the crowd.
At the end of the day, we were walking back toward the march headquarters to get our personal belongings and head for Union Station and the train ride home. I suddenly realized I had absolutely nothing in the way of a memento of the event. I spotted a “No Parking — Wednesday, August 28, 1963” sign on a telephone pole and cut it down.
I have it to this day, framed, with no explanation other than the No Parking message. It was the day before my 20th birthday and the day of the 100th commemoration of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. And it was the day of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
The dream lives on. I have since worked on the campaign of the first black governor in the U.S., in a Southern state, no less. And I worked on both campaigns of America’s first black president.
The dream lives on. The words of that day will resonate forever.
Clearly, words matter; don’t they?
Weather Journal70 Thursday to ice Sunday?