Editor’s note: Bart Barnes, a long time reporter and editor at the Washington Post, now works on contract for our news obituaries staff. We discovered in casual conversation yesterday after coming back from the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that he was one of the Post’s reporting team covering the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Here are Bart’s recollections.
Forty-eight years ago is a long time, and I’m not going to say I remember Aug. 28, 1963 and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom like it was yesterday. But I do remember bits and elements of that event very clearly. It was a beautiful summer day, warm and pleasant, but not hot or humid, one of the half-dozen or so best days of that long-ago summer. I was 25 years old, a green reporter at The Washington Post, having joined the news staff of the newspaper four weeks earlier, and I was one of about 30 or so Post staffers assigned to help cover the demonstration.
No one at The Post, nor anywhere else as best as I can recall, knew what really to expect. No one could remember anything quite like it. Would it be peaceful and orderly as the organizers had promised? Would it spin out of control? Would there be a riot? No one knew for sure. My assignment that day as a junior member of the Post staff was to interview random participants in the March and telephone the results in to The Post. I was also directed to call the city desk immediately if a riot started any where near me. I was assigned an area of the Mall just east of 14th Street, between Constitution and Independence Avenues. This was out of sight of the center and focal point of the March, at the Lincoln Memorial, but there were public address speakers set up so we could hear what was going on.
The crowd, it turned out, was pleasant, peaceful, orderly, courteous and respectful to one another and to the police. There were many black faces and many white faces. Many of the men wore coats and ties. There was never any question of a riot, which some doomsayers had predicted.
By early afternoon I had already telephoned in to the Post more interviews than they would ever have room for in the next day’s newspaper. So I sat down under a tree and relaxed. I don’t remember when the speeches started down at the Lincoln Memorial, but when they did I listened for a while but then began to tune them out. One seemed the same as another.
I suppose I must have been daydreaming when, without intending to, I found myself paying attention to one of the speakers. I didn’t know at the time who he was, but the rhythm, the tone, and the cadence of his oratory was compelling. I just couldn’t not listen. He kept repeating the same refrain, “I have a dream,” or sometimes, “I have a dream today.” I thought to myself, “This guy is really good. He speaks like a master violinist plays a Stradivarius.”
Not until I looked in the next day’s newspaper did I find out he was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
If you were a journalist covering the famous march, tell us about your experience in the comments section.