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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)

New York City had been a shock to the Ladner sisters, who were born and grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss. For the first time, they saw African Americans sitting on buses with white people and were welcomed into four-star restaurants.

"When I first saw Harlem, I remember thinking, 'I have never seen this many black people in my life!' " Ladner said.

For the march, Ladner solicited donations by phone, spoke at fundraising events with Joyce and reached out across the country to churches, black fraternities and sororities, civic organizations and anybody else who could write a check. "The work was demanding, hectic, high-energy and very busy," Ladner said.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, a native Washingtonian who was attending law school at Yale and who became the District's delegate to Congress, often visited Ladner. So did John Lewis and activist Frank Smith, a field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who was courting Holmes and later served on the D.C. Council.

Another frequent visitor was a young folk singer, Bob Dylan, who had taken the nation by storm with his protest song "Blowin' in the Wind." Ladner had first met Dylan when he went to Mississippi, shortly after Evers died, for a concert with Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel in support of black workers. "We got to be friends because of his sincere interest in human rights," she said.

Two days before the march, Ladner and friends headed south. They had learned that three of their friends in the civil rights movement had been sentenced to death in Georgia for seditious activities, Ladner said. "We were more concerned about that at the time than we were about the march," she said.

The afternoon before the march, Ladner got her hair done. The hairdresser "put too many tight curls in my hair and too much oil," she recalled.

That night, she attended a fundraising reception with Dylan. A number of celebrities were there, including Sidney Poitier, who introduced himself and asked whether they had previously met.

"I could barely talk," Ladner recalled, laughing. "I just said, 'No, sir. No, sir.' He was very gracious, but I was young, and most of the people like him were older. Bobby was quiet, so we just sat there. We never moved off the couch."

On march day, the first order of business was to protest the death sentences in Georgia. "We marched on the Justice Department early that morning," she said.

She was walking back to the Lincoln Memorial when she and Joyce took a shortcut through a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Malcolm X was talking with reporters. Ladner was riveted. "That was the first and only time I ever saw him," she said.

Ladner said she was struck by how orderly everything was. Men, women and children wore their Sunday best, despite the heat.

"I'll never forget that day," she said.

Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that the glory and glamour of the march would not change anything back home.

Two weeks later, on a sunny Sunday morning, four girls in the basement of a Birmingham church were killed by a bomb.

King delivered the sermon at their funeral. Ladner's image, in mourning and holding an American flag, appeared on the cover of Jet magazine.


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