The anticipation was tremendous. King was the last of the 10 official speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Janette Harris had heard him on the radio and seen him on TV, though never in person.
But when he finally took the lectern that warm, sunny Wednesday, a park ranger had to bend down the flexible microphones for him to speak, and Harris was struck by his modest height.
Monumental speeches like his surely must come from a man of monumental stature, she had thought, “a giant of a man.”
Then King began his “I Have a Dream” speech, and his voice echoed over the crowd like that of a prophet: I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation . . .
Fifty years later, Harris, now 73, and her husband, now 77, sat in their Northwest Washington home this month and remembered how King’s words were, indeed, those of a giant that day, and how they moved the couple so personally.
“It was like we were spellbound,” she said.
“As long as I live on the face of this Earth, I shall never forget it,” Rudolph Harris said. “He captivated me. . . . He had gotten into my spirit, or into my marrow.”
Rudolph Harris is a biologist, Air Force veteran and retired branch chief at the Food and Drug Administration. Janette Harris is a historian, college teacher and former president of Carter G. Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in Washington.
They are among an ever-dwindling number of people, many now gray-haired and aging, who can say they were present for King’s speech in 1963.
“That day just cemented everything I had done,” said Janette Harris, who had helped stage the 1960 Louisiana lunch counter sit-in, spent a day in jail and been thrown out of Southern University as a troublemaker.
“It made real for me that everything I had done was the right course to take,” she said.
That course had started in segregated Monroe, La., where she was born to a seamstress and a middle-class black businessman who owned a shoe store and a real estate business.
Her father, Eluen, would later start the first black library in Monroe and open the first swimming pool for blacks. “They had none of that when I was growing up,” she said.
“He never wanted us to work for white people, because my grandmother worked for $3 a week ironing clothes,” Janette Harris said. “He kept saying, ‘You can’t do that. You’ve got to do better than that.’’ ’
“He determined . . . that we would go to college,” she said.
She began her working life at 15 when her father got her a job as a cashier for a black man who took a bus load of cotton pickers to the fields each day.