After 45 Years, a Dream Deferred Is Being Fulfilled

Dorie Ladner heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Washington in 1963. For her, Sen. Barack Obama's success symbolizes the fruition of King's vision.
Dorie Ladner heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Washington in 1963. For her, Sen. Barack Obama's success symbolizes the fruition of King's vision. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dorie Ladner looked out over the throng at the Lincoln Memorial that morning and had a sad thought:

This isn't going to change anything.

It was Aug. 28, 1963, a sweltering Wednesday, and Ladner, a 21-year-old volunteer with the Mississippi-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had come to town for the March on Washington.

The year had been difficult for civil rights supporters. In April, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Ala.; a month later, national media captured Birmingham police attacking demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses. And June 12, Ladner's mentor, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, 37, was slain in Jackson, Miss., after returning home from a meeting that Ladner had attended.

As she stood backstage the day of the march, the messages about freedom and justice rang empty in her ears. "We're all here," she remembered thinking, "and we're going to listen to all these speeches, then we're going to go back to Mississippi and get called [racial epithets] again. This isn't going to change anything."

As Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) prepares to accept the Democratic Party's nomination for president tonight, 45 years after she heard King deliver his "I Have a Dream" plea for a colorblind America, Ladner, 66, said she realizes that those words did begin to change race relations.

"Dr. King's dream . . . is being fulfilled," said Ladner, a retired social worker who lives in Northwest Washington and worked for years at D.C. General Hospital. "He mentioned that he didn't want his children to be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. He was looking to the future with hope and faith that this grand land of America would someday accept all people. Barack Obama's nomination is a fulfillment of that dream."

Ladner is often interviewed about the civil rights movement. About the meeting she attended with Evers the night he died. About James Cheney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the three organizers she helped train for the Congress of Racial Equality who were killed in Mississippi in 1964. About the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which she helped found and which challenged the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964.

She remains an advocate: She has marched against the war in Iraq and in support of statehood for the District.

Her D.C. apartment is filled with books featuring pictures of her and folders with newspaper articles of her quotes. One of her favorite mementos is a picture of her with her sister Joyce taken the day of the march, both smiling and dressed in denim overall skirts. Joyce became a dean at Howard University and also served as interim president.

The sisters were among 250,000 people who converged on the nation's capital that day in 1963. Besides King, the program included a performance by Mahalia Jackson and addresses by actor Charlton Heston and activists such as John Lewis, now a Democratic U.S. representative from Georgia.

Dorie Ladner was living in New York, where she moved after Evers was killed, working as a fundraiser at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's office in Manhattan. Her sister worked nearby at the march headquarters for Bayard Rustin, who conceived the March on Washington, and for lead organizer A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a labor union.

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