“I wish he had said ‘I have a plan’ instead of ‘I have a dream,’ ” says Larry Rubin of Takoma Park, remembering the speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave 50 years ago.
Rubin was standing close to the raised stage at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on that hot Wednesday afternoon half a century ago, hearing every word, seeing every gesture and movement. He even taped the speech, a personal audio copy of which he keeps under lock and key.
What he remembers most were at first the fear of violence following threats by the Arlington-based American Nazi Party and then the exhilarating ride home after the speeches concluded peacefully.
“I was just a 20-year-old kid,” recalls Rubin over green tea at a sidewalk cafe as he turns the flimsy pages of a scrapbook he keeps of the era.
An Eagle Scout in Troop 200 at Har Zion Synagogue in Philadelphia, Rubin began studies in 1959 at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where on his first day on campus he discovered the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he says. “I was an idealist, a dreamer, and the fight for civil rights electrified me.”
Turning over pages filled with newspaper clippings, Rubin, 71, remembers his years as a student volunteer and later as a paid staff member at the SNCC, an offshoot of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference then headed by King. Part of his SNCC salary, $9.65 a week after taxes, was subsidized by the Sholom Aleichem Club of Philadelphia, he said.
It was through the SNCC that Rubin says he met most of the leadership in the civil rights movement, from SNCC Chairman John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, to the late Stokely Carmichael, the fiery Black Panther advocate. He even roomed once with King and Bayard Rustin at a Georgia conference center where plans were made in 1962 for the March on Washington.
“King wore silk pajamas,” Rubin recalls. “I’m a college kid rooming with a future Nobel Prize winner, in bunk beds yet, and he’s in silk jammies . . . . You couldn’t make this stuff up.”
The scrapbooks include stories from Ohio newspapers of Rubin and other Antioch students riding two buses all night to attend the march and then returning to Ohio the same day. There’s a Philadelphia Inquirer story about the arrest in 1965 of a Mississippi man who threatened to shoot Rubin for his SNCC activities in a rural town.
“It was no picnic back then,” says Rubin, who, after raising two daughters, lives in a condominium filled with paintings by his 97-year-old mother, Leona, who lives at the Hebrew Home in Rockville.
“She ran a beauty salon until she was 84 years old from our house,” he explains. Her family had a bakery in Poland in the 1890s. After czarist agents discovered they were slipping communist propaganda into bread loaves, the family story goes, they killed the spy, then fled to Philadelphia.
Rubin’s paternal grandfather, Baruch, fled pogroms in the Ukraine to spend a lifetime studying the Torah, while Baruch’s wife, Fagele, supported the family by selling fruit from a pushcart in south Philadelphia.
“They were so poor,” he remembers.
Rubin recalls that his father, a construction worker named Aaron, “used to come home from union meetings all beat up because he spoke out against white-only membership rules,” he said.
“My parents said as human beings it was our duty to work for justice,” says Rubin, who after SNCC worked at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank concerned with issues affecting African Americans, as well as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, where he focused on African American relations. He also had a stint as speechwriter for the Department of Education, and he currently works for the Carpenters Union.
While Rubin concedes that King’s speech is embedded deeply in America’s consciousness, his reaction to it was disappointment at first. “I’d heard it over and over in little churches in the South, and, frankly, I thought [King] was just phoning it in, giving up on the idea of a big vision for America’s future.”
He remembers, too, a tension at the time felt by many in the civil rights movement about King. “Behind his back, we called him ‘the lord,’ meaning, ‘lord of the manor,’ a way of describing his aloof, ‘to the manor born’ demeanor.’ ”
By contrast, SNCC President John Lewis was called “the saint” behind his back by many activists, remembered Rubin, because of Lewis’s “humility and openness.”
With that tension in mind, he remembers the long ride home from Washington as joyful, but his fellow travelers were not focused on the King speech.
“It wasn’t until we got home the next day and saw the newspaper stories, and the TV reports, that it really hit me,” he confesses. “King’s words were like wind that holds up a kite. . . . They held the civil rights struggle together in the years afterward.”
Still, on a sunny day half a century later, Rubin laments, “what’s missing today is that people don’t even know that the name of the March was ‘Jobs and Justice,’ meaning racial equality and decent jobs for blacks and whites.”
“Racism has diminished, for sure, but I wish King said, ‘I have an economic plan,’ ” Rubin says, taking a breath. When King spoke, the federal minimum wage was $1.25 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $9.54 today; the minimum is actually only $7.25.
“America’s going backwards economically,” Rubin said ruefully.
‘I was so happy” the day that thousands marched to the Lincoln Memorial to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., says Deborah Hale James, sitting quietly in the sunny parlor of the house her husband, Paul, built by hand decades ago in the woods of Adelphi in Prince George’s County. “There was no violence, and the speakers were wonderful,” she recalls.
That was important, James says, as organizers at the Florida Avenue’s Friends Meeting of Washington, also known as Quakers, had warned parents not to bring children because “things could get out of hand.”
“We were afraid of white troublemakers, or the police and soldiers would panic, and we didn’t want kids to get hurt,” she said.
The backdrop haunted her, she remembers. James, 96, grew up in Marion, Ind., the descendant of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, and lived through the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two black men murdered by a white mob on Aug. 7, 1936, in part because they were accused of raping a white woman who later repudiated the charges.
The 19-year-old James saw the town “crazy with hate against black people,” she says.
Town police in the crowd cooperated in the lynching, according to press reports, and local studio photographer Lawrence Beitler took pictures of the dead bodies hanging from a tree surrounded by a large crowd. Thousands of copies were sold as souvenirs and, in 1937, a teacher in New York named Abel Meeropol saw them and wrote the poem “Strange Fruit.” It became the text for the song of the same name popularized by Billie Holiday.
“Even the Quakers were scared about the lynching,” remembers James. “We wanted to protect or support the black men, but the whole town was against us. Our elders told us to stay home.”
“It was very dangerous, and I was afraid the march could go that way, too,” she says.
After marrying Paul, a biologist who worked at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, James raised three sons — she has six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren — and used her psychology degree to become a schoolteacher. She finished her career at Northwestern High School as Prince George’s County integrated in the years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing “separate but equal” education for black children.
On the day of the march, James says hundreds of fellow Quakers carpooled to the Florida Avenue meeting house, dropping off youngsters at day care provided by the meeting. As city buses didn’t run, they walked to the Lincoln Memorial singing “We Shall Overcome.” They “expected violence all the way,” she recalls.
“Nothing bad happened, and we had standing room near the speakers’ platform,” she remembers. “It was like I could reach out and touch Dr. King.”
“That’s what made it so wonderful for me,” she continues. “His words rang so true, and the crowd was excited and began roaring every time he said, ‘I have a dream.’ ”
Still, walking back to Florida Avenue meeting house to pick up a son and a ride home, she says white people along the way “looked at us with such hatred in their eyes for siding with the blacks. I’ll never forget that.”
While conceding that King’s speech and subsequent civil rights legislation addressed legal segregation and denial of rights for black people, James today believes “the world is in worse shape.”
King would rail against economic disparities, she says, and oppose wars “that don’t seem to end.”
“He’d worked harder to get black and white people to get along,” James says.
“What I remember was a huge number of people and that I couldn’t see a thing,” says Stephen Woods, 65, sipping beer on a lazy Saturday at the back porch of the 1815 farm house he shares with wife Martha and two daughters in Hyattsville.
In 1963, Woods was a 14-year-old “more interested in sex, drugs and rock and roll,” he laughs, but went along to the march “because my dad was one of the leaders in the civil rights movement in D.C. . . . a Christian who lived his faith that all men are brothers, and that Christ’s message went to everyone.”
“He was a serious guy,” says Woods.
His father was Wayne R. Woods, at the time a minister at Augustana Lutheran Church in the District, and before that at Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. His father before him, Robert, founded the church in 1900 and ministered it for 40 years before yielding the pulpit to his son.
“What you need to know is that in 1954 my dad had an African American friend who he invited to join our church,” says Woods. The all-white congregation, however, refused to accept him “and my dad said, ‘Well, okay, I’m not going to be pastor of this church anymore.’ ”
The family moved to Washington “because dad read an article in Reader’s Digest about Gordon Cosby integrating churches here,” Woods recalls, referring to the man who, with his wife, Mary, founded the Church of the Savior in Adams Morgan. “He took a job selling pianos for a year before the Augustana position opened.”
Woods, who briefly headed Montgomery College’s SNCC branch before earning a degree in education from the University of Virginia, discovered a passion for the stock market. He wrote “Float Analysis: Powerful Technical Indicators Using Price and Volume,” which spawned a radio show and a web-based consulting business. He says he and two sisters grew up “in an integrated world in Pittsburgh and D.C.” He remembers his mother, Margaret, joining a black friend to integrate white restaurants in the District.
“She never got beat up,” he says, pausing, “but you could cut the air with a knife.”
The elder Woods teamed with Cosby and other ministers to oppose segregation, working with the National Council of Churches and other entities, Woods explains. By the march, he was terminally ill with cancer, and his son and a daughter joined members of Augustana to wheel him to the Lincoln Memorial event.
“He felt Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Christ were all operating from the same consciousness,” Woods says. “Dad was beaming and exhausted that day.”
“We lived in public housing at 747 7th Street Southeast,” says Sharon Waldvogel, 62, describing a childhood at the Arthur Capper Dwellings, a collection of 700 red-brick, barrack-style apartments not far from the Nationals’ baseball stadium today.
“We didn’t have money,” she says. Her father, Benjamin, was a drinker and a bricklayer and then cab driver, she says, while her mother, Eleanor Mary Sullivan, raised two kids and worked full-time at Hecht’s department store.
“She started as a ‘tube girl,’ ” says Waldvogel, explaining that, after a sales clerk took a customer’s order, it was sent via pneumatic tubes to the storage area, where her mother would retrieve the article for shipment upstairs.
“And we lived with black people all my life,” remembers Waldvogel, who now lives in Laurel and owns a five-stool beauty salon. Many of her neighbors, playmates and fellow students were black, she recalls, and only church — “mom was an Episcopal, what we called ‘Catholic Lite’ ” — was segregated. “They just didn’t let black people in,” she says.
That was a sore point at home, Waldvogel remembers, “because mom always told me and my brother to judge people not on how they look but how they behave. . . . She constantly reminded us, I think, because in Washington at that time, white people were openly prejudiced, and she didn’t believe in that. She didn’t want her kids to be haters.”
One childhood incident stood out, when a group of black youths “jumped my brother” and he came home hurt, she recalls. Her father let loose a furious string of hate-filled language against African Americans, she says.
“Like so many other people, dad had nasty words to describe black people,” she says. “Never to their face, of course. He even had black friends who he palled around with, and then talk about behind their back.”
“But mom said, ‘Don’t listen to your father. He’s wrong.’ ”
That came back to Waldvogel, who never graduated from high school and raised two daughters as a single mom, when she remembers the march.
“We were ordered to stay indoors by my dad. . . . And most of the white people in our neighborhood seemed to be scared,” she said. “It was very quiet on the streets.”
Watching the march on television and reading follow-up newspaper stories, she said most of it was too sophisticated for a 12-year-old, but she recalled King saying people should “be judged by their character, not the color of their skin.”
“My mom was telling us that for years,” Waldvogel said, sighing. “And I think after King spoke, a lot of white people got it, too — that he and my mom were right.”
Our mother was adamant that she didn’t want to be buried among African Americans, recalls my sister, Diana Lane, a 62-year old widow now living in New York.
In making end-of-life plans, mother instructed that her burial be in Montgomery County, not Prince George’s County, where she had lived from 1949 to 2001, and which had become majority African-American.
“ ‘I don’t want to be around them,’ mom said,” Diana remembers.
It was my sister who provoked a family crisis in the 1960s when, at her first job, she shared a bus commute with another new employee, a young black man. One day on the bus, the two decided to see a just-released movie everyone was talking about, she recalled.
“You can’t date a nigger — you just can’t!” Diana remembers mom saying.
Racial prejudice wasn’t the only kind of prejudice in our home. Intolerance was also directed at Roman Catholics and Jews, though half the family is Catholic and there is a Jewish wing of relations. When my brother, sister and I later married Roman Catholics — and my sister later remarried a Jew — the hostile language was tempered, but a wary animosity lingered.
What made it so extraordinary, in retrospect, is that mom was a first-generation American, born of Czech and Polish parents, a coal miner’s daughter who came to Washington during World War II for the easy jobs. After the kids grew up and left the house, she went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees with honors from the University of Maryland, as well as all the course work for her doctorate.
“Something poisoned her,” my sister suggests.
Nor did it help that Prince George’s County public schools were segregated. Or that Keller Memorial Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill, where we worshipped, was segregated. Most amusements parks, pools and movie houses also excluded blacks.
Even television twisted our view of African Americans. We only saw African Americans in jungle movies and TV shows, cast in the roles of the inarticulate and barely educated. Alternatively, there was the buffoonery of the “Amos ’n’ Andy” TV show, a popular comedy playing off the antics of a group of fast-talking Harlem characters, a show condemned by the NAACP as being racist.
The door opened for us with the publication of “Black Like Me,” by John Howard Griffin. The 1961 nonfiction book described Griffin’s six-week masquerade as a black man — thanks to skin-darkening treatments by a dermatologist — traveling by bus through the racially segregated South.
“For the first time, I realized what it was like to be discriminated against for being black,” says my sister. “It was so wrong, I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t believe my own mother wouldn’t sympathize with such hurt.”
On the day of the march, not yet in college and working at the Hot Shoppe on New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road, I decided on the spur of the moment to drive to the Mall to see the march before my shift started.
The city streets were deserted, except for troops and police. Parking illegally behind a building, I walked from the Archives area to the Washington Monument, and from the hill there saw a sea of humanity gathered along the reflecting pool leading to the Lincoln Memorial.
It was hot, time had slipped away and I had to get back to the Hot Shoppe for my afternoon shift. All I could hear over the public address system were a confusing echo-chamber rumble and the occasional cheer from the crowd.
I felt something important was happening when an ocean of people — not at a football game or parade — gathered to oppose wickedness.
To this day, I cannot listen to or watch video of King’s speech without choking up. King’s words set me free.