Eleanor Oliver, then 26, strode down 16th Street NW from All Souls Unitarian Church, filled with the optimism of the early 1960s. She sported an armband with “UU,” for Unitarian Universalist, printed on it.
Marjorie Henderson, then 42, her daughter, Norma, 20, and husband, Robert, 43, were also out on 16th Street, walking south from Crestwood as people poured from surrounding neighborhoods in a vast, almost spiritual congregation.
It was Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963.
And these were among the more than 250,000 people from across the nation who were descending on the Mall that warm and breezy summer day to answer the question, as someone had put it: “What do Negroes want?”
It was a moment generations had been waiting for. African Americans and their allies finally had the country’s full attention. And in Martin Luther King Jr., they had one of history’s most sublime orators to answer the question.
Now, on the 48th anniversary of the march, as thousands gather in Washington to dedicate a memorial to the slain civil rights leader, the dwindling number of those who were there that day count themselves lucky.
“Even the day after it happened, if you didn’t go, you really felt bad,” Henderson’s daughter, Norma, 68, recalls.
Oliver, now 74, says, “We were very proud to tell everybody we’d been there.”
All sorts of people were — some destined for public life and others who would just be able to tell grandchildren that their ears had heard King’s words as they rang across the Mall.
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
Frank Smith, 20, who had grown up poor on a Georgia peach plantation, was there with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The future D.C. Council member was fresh from 18 days in jail and a hunger strike in Mississippi, where he had been arrested for demonstrating.
The SNCC’s 25-year-old chairman, John Lewis, a future congressman, had been beaten during several civil rights marches and had been arrested 24 times. He was there, trying to tone down the speech that he was going to deliver. Some thought that his line about marching through the South like Union Gen. William T. Sherman was a little too fiery.
A dapper young Washington minister and former Boy Scout named Walter E. Fauntroy was there, too, frantically trying to arrange repairs to the rented public address system.
And Courtland Cox, another top SNCC worker, walked to the still-deserted Mall early that morning with chief organizer Bayard Rustin, who turned to him and said: “Do you think anybody’s coming to this march?”
The answer was, of course, yes.
By bus, train and car they came. A Yale law school student — the future congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) — came by air, and she recalls seeing the multitude on the Mall out of the airplane widow.