August 1963 march created lasting memories

August 24, 2011

Henry Chambers went to the March on Washington with his wife, Lauretta, and their pinochle partners, Sherman and Dorothy Williams, who lived across the courtyard of their apartment complex off Bladensburg Road in Northeast Washington.

They took a picnic basket and maybe some fried chicken.

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.

Many came on foot.

Marjorie Henderson, now 89, recalls the eerie quiet of the migration down 16th Street: “No cars,” says Henderson, whose granddaughter, Lisa Anders, would become a senior manager on the King memorial construction project four decades later. “People just walking, shaking hands. Like a spiritual movement, really.”

It was the same on Constitution Avenue, along the Mall, says Mazaline Baird, then a 40-year-old schoolteacher.

“What I remember is just walking down the avenue with thousands of people,” says Baird, now 88, who attended with her mother, 14-year-old daughter and two brothers. “The sense of unity. You know it was black and white. It was just an amazing experience.”

She does not recall how they all got to the Mall from her rowhouse way up near Missouri Avenue NW. “I do remember listening to that speech and the tears rolling down,” she says.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

Years in the making

The march, technically the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, had been years in the making, with calls for such a demonstration going back to the 1940s.

But by 1963, the “Negro,” as King would say in his speech, still lived “on a lonely island of poverty . . . an exile in his own land.”

Blacks existed in a segregated, oppressive society that was fraught with fear, deprivation and atrocities, according to historian Drew D. Hansen’s book “The Dream,” a study of King’s speech.

An estimated 3,400 blacks had been lynched in the United States in the 80 years before 1963, according to the book.

In segregated Washington, blacks could not try on clothes in downtown stores, and there were no black bus drivers, recalled Cox, then a 22-year-old SNCC march organizer.

“It was a different time,” says Cox, now 70.

Although there had been boycotts and demonstrations in recent years, it took a brutal attack on protesters by police with dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala., in spring 1963 to put civil rights on the front pages, Hansen wrote.

Sensing a breakthrough, King suggested the next move for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference should be a massive march on Washington. Such a march already was in the works, under the direction of A. Philip Randolph, a 74-year-old veteran civil rights and union leader. King and other groups joined the effort.

Final preparations

In Washington, King’s top liaison with the federal government was Fauntroy, later the District’s first nonvoting delegate to Congress. He was a 30-year-old minister who had grown up in the District and knew its ways.

“I was born in Washington, D.C.,” says Fauntroy, now 78. “I didn’t have to look at a picture of the Constitution. I could see the actual Constitution down at the Archives.”

The morning of the march, Fauntroy was exhausted. One of his jobs had been to help raise $66,000 for the one-day rental of a huge sound system to carry the speeches across the Mall.

The system had been installed, but the evening before, Fauntroy got word that it had been sabotaged. He says he immediately called Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, whom he knew, and asked if the Army Signal Corps could provide a sound system.

Kennedy assented, and that night the Army began a crash effort to get a sound system installed by the next day at noon, when the march was to start.

Technicians worked all night. By 9 a.m., buses were starting to arrive. “Oh, Lord,” Fauntroy remembers thinking. Still, the work went on. Ten o’clock came, then 11. Finally, right around noon, Fauntroy heard the amplified words, “Testing . . . one, two, three, four.”

“Praise the Lord,” he remembers thinking.

Another sleep-deprived organizer that day was Sterling Tucker, the Washington representative of the National Urban League and a future chairman of the D.C. Council. With Fauntroy, Tucker did much of the local grunt work for the march. They handled permits, VIP seating, the media.

The night before the march, already exhausted from his labors, Tucker, then 39, had heard his 2-year-old daughter humming “We Shall Overcome” as she dozed off in her crib.

“When I heard that, my energy was just renewed,” he says.

Tucker, now, 87, was up on the speakers’ platform the next day. He recalls that King was quiet and focused.

“It was a beautiful day,” he says. “The weather was beautiful. The spirit was beautiful. The spirit was alive. Oh, I felt so great at the end of the day. I felt like America had moved forward . . . because I felt like America was listening.”

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low . . . and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

The speakers’ platform was crammed with VIPs. The nation’s most powerful civil rights leaders. Movie stars. Sports stars. Opera star Marian Anderson sang. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson belted out the rousing spiritual “How I Got Over.”

Julian Bond, then SNCC’s 23-year-old communications director, moved among the dignitaries with a case of Coca-Cola. Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. took a Coke, pointed a jaunty finger at the future NAACP chairman and said, “Thanks, kid.”

John Lewis, his speech stripped of the Sherman reference, was the sixth of 10 official speakers. He remembers looking out over the multitude.

People, many in their Sunday clothes, were jammed around the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They had buttons, signs and flags.

One march pennant said “I was there.” Some people had drawn equal signs on their foreheads. Some lined the Reflecting Pool with their feet in the water. Some were up in the trees along the Mall.

“This is it,” Lewis thought.

King, who would be assassinated five years later, was the last official speaker.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. . . . With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together.

“He turned the marble steps into a modern-day pulpit,” Lewis remembers. “The crowd was with him. It was like being in a very large Baptist church. People were being transformed. People were being lifted up.”

And when this happens . . . we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Many of those who heard the words are gone.

Lewis is the only one of the 10 official speakers still alive. Mazaline Baird is the only one of her siblings still living. And Henry Chambers is the last of his pinochle foursome. His wife died in 2007, Dorothy Williams in 2006, and Sherman Williams some years before that.

But in the old days, when they were still playing cards twice a week, the four of them would get together on the anniversary of the speech and listen to a recording of it.

Now 74, Chambers, of Capitol Heights, who is black, tells his children of those amazing times. He reminds his son’s wife, who is white, that in his day, they would not have been allowed to marry.

“Pop, ” he says she tells him, “forget it.”

***

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Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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