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.
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.