On the sweltering morning of Aug. 28, 1963, Hannah S. Chambers woke early in her Annapolis home, flipped through her closet and carefully selected a dark blue skirt and crisp, light blue blouse. Later, as she prepared to board a bus to Washington with other protesters, Chambers re-read the instructions that had been disseminated about the march, moving her fingers over the words as she read them.
“It will be orderly, but not subservient. It will be proud, but not arrogant,” the pamphlet instructed.
“It will be non-violent, but not timid. It will be unified in purposes and behavior, not splintered. . . . It will be outspoken, but not raucous.” She loved the way the organizers had framed the intentions of the march.
At the time, Maryland paid black teachers less than white teachers. Chambers, then a middle school history teacher, recalls deciding to march “because I felt I deserved everything the average human being should have an opportunity to have.”
She wasn’t nervous on the bus ride downtown, she said, although there had been warnings there could be violence. When Chambers reached the Mall, “the atmosphere was calm. And there was such tranquillity,” she recalled.
She was stunned by the huge crowds of people lining the Reflecting Pool. Many were just ordinary people, like her.
On Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of the country’s first memorials was unveiled, honoring the more than 200,000 “foot soldiers” — the regular people who endured the heat, threats and harassment to march in 1963.
The memorial, which includes the names of more than 500 “foot soldiers” etched on three slabs of granite, was erected at Clay and Calvert streets in Annapolis, the site of the bus depot from which marchers departed in 1963. The result of months of planning by the Annapolis-based Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, the memorial weighs 21 / 2 tons and stands seven feet tall in Whitmore Park.
The first panel includes a brief history of the foot soldiers, “the seamstresses, the barbers, the teachers, the ordinary people from all walks of life who chose to be present that day in 1963.” The next panel includes a list of names: last, first, city, state. A final panel includes a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change.”
The memorial completes a triumvirate of civil rights memorials in Maryland, including a bronze statue of King erected at Anne Arundel Community College and a garden tribute to Coretta Scott King at Sojourner-Douglass College in Edgewater.
“The genesis behind the memorial was that, increasingly, it has become obvious that people don’t realize it is not the major personalities that make history. They are made by history,” said Carl Snowden, chairman of the King Committee, which has raised $20,000 in private donations to pay for the memorial.
Snowden said people mistakenly refer to the 1963 protest as “Dr. Martin Luther King’s march on Washington.”
“The greatest thing that came out of the march was it was the first time in history that many people of various racial backgrounds came together around the issue of civil rights,” Snowden said. “That gets lost because of the great eloquence of Dr. King. But no matter how eloquent he was, had the foot soldiers not been there, it would just have been an eloquent black preacher. . . . It would have been of little note. It was great because of the fact there were so many regular people who showed up.”
After the dedication and the speeches were over at First Baptist Church and everybody had crossed arms and sung “We Shall Overcome,” Snowden called on Chambers, now 80, to come up.
In a gray dress complemented by fine gold jewelry, Chambers rose, smoothed her silver hair and climbed to the pulpit.
“I thank you all for coming back and saying thank you,” she said. “God bless you all.”
Then she took her seat among the rows of fellow foot soldiers.