A fter her Louisiana sit-in three years before, and her flight north to finish college, and now the trek to the thronged Mall, Janette Hoston Harris was about to see the famous Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time.
She was 23, newly married and stood on her tiptoes with several hundred thousand people jammed in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Her husband, Rudolph, 27, had climbed a tree for a better view. It was Aug. 28, 1963.
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.
Her job was to check the value of the cotton they picked against the snacks they purchased on the bus and to keep track of the money.
When the white farm owner challenged her ability to count, she retorted that she could count “as well as you can.” Whereupon she was labeled “sassy,” she said. But she kept the job all summer.
Her father’s next task for her was helping blacks in Monroe register to vote. The rule was that they had to recite the preamble to the Constitution in order to register, she said.
They trained people for weeks and then drove them to the courthouse to register. “My grandmother missed one word,” she said. “They made her come back the next day. I was never so angry.”
Civil rights advocates had been calling for a march on Washington since the 1940s.
Although there had been boycotts and demonstrations in intervening years, it took a brutal attack on protesters by police with dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala., in spring of 1963 to focus renewed attention on civil rights.
Sensing the moment, King suggested that his Southern Christian Leadership Conference should stage a massive protest march on Washington. But such a march already was in the works, under the direction of A. Philip Randolph, a 74-year-old veteran civil rights and union leader. King and other groups joined the effort.
Janette and Randolph Harris were living in a little house on Farragut Place, off North Capitol Street at the time. They had no children yet and very little money.
Washington, where she had moved after college, was then not quite as segregated as Louisiana. “They didn’t have signs up that said ‘Colored,’ and ‘Whites,’ none of that. But you could feel it.”
She wasn’t permitted to try on clothes in a department store, she said, and her husband was followed by clerks whenever he went shopping.
“The fire was still in my belly for change,” she said. “When we heard about the march on Washington, we just knew we were going to be there. We read about it, and we knew we were coming.”
Getting ready for it was getting ready for Christmas, she said.
“You now how you plan . . . you buy things, you try to get ready for Christmas?” she said, “All these people are going to come to Washington. Martin Luther King’s going to come to Washington. . . . So here was a chance to meet the man I always admired.”
Three years earlier, on March 28, 1960, she and six other Southern University students sat down at the whites-only lunch counter in the segregated S.H. Kress five-and-ten-cent store in Baton Rouge.
Harris was in the last semester of her senior year at the historically black school. She and the other students were acting in solidarity with the Greensboro, N.C., black student sit-ins that had started the month before.
At the Baton Rouge Kress store, blacks were supposed to sit at a designated table in the corner, she said, rather than at the counter, which was reserved for whites.
In protest, she took a counter seat beside a white man, who turned out to be the manager. He looked at her. The black workers behind the counter were nervous. “You could see they were nervous,” she said.
“I said, ‘I’d like to have a cup of tea,’ ” she said. A black waitress said, “ ‘We can’t serve you here. . . . I can fix it and bring it to you in the corner,’ ” Harris said. “I said, ‘Oh no. I want it right here. . . . I’m a customer.’ ”
The other students did the same. Someone called the police.
The group was arrested and thrown into the segregated jail, making national headlines.
All were released on bail within a few hours after being charged with disturbing the peace. They returned to campus, where fellow students rallied to their side.
But the governor of Louisiana ordered the state-supported school to take “decisive action” against the students or its budget would be affected, she said.
The students were immediately expelled.
When the students had trouble getting accepted at other schools, Charles H. Wesley, president of Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, invited all six to enroll. They started in September 1960.
A few weeks later, she said, Wesley got a call that the Louisiana authorities were coming to take the students back for trial. She said Wesley called Ohio Gov. Michael DiSalle, who told him that Louisiana had no authority in Ohio.
“They can’t just come in here and take people out,” she said the governor told Wesley. “No, Charlie, we’re not going to let them do that.”
She said she and the other students went into hiding, and the Louisiana authorities never came calling.
She said her family and friends were terrified about what might happen to her back in Louisiana. Even after she graduated, they worried about her returning. “My mother said, ‘You cannot come back to Monroe. . . . You will be killed.’ ”
“I said, ‘Well, where do I go?’ ” she said.
She had a cousin in the District, so “I packed up all my stuff and came to Washington.”
On Aug. 28, 1963, Harris and her husband had been married about nine months. They had been wed the previous December at a Howard University chapel.
Rudolph Harris, the son of a truck driver and a school teacher, was a native of Shreveport and had studied at Southern University before his wife. They met in Ohio when she was a student and he was in the Air Force. He followed her to Washington when she moved.
He said he believed that he and other black professionals his age had benefited from the agitation of people like his wife, who were just a few years younger.
They planned to go to the march together. They packed sodas, sandwiches and crackers. They left early in the morning, taking the bus and then walking “forever,” she said. They reached the Mall about 7:30 a.m.
They made their way through the crowd along the Reflecting Pool and stopped under a tree near the Lincoln Memorial. “We wanted some shade,” she said. Her husband climbed the tree to see better. “We always tease him about the fact that he climbed up in his tree,” she said with a laugh.
As they waited, the excitement and the crowds grew.
“They came in groups, and groups and groups, and they never stopped coming,” she said. Blacks, whites, foreigners, women, children. “People brought their families because they wanted their families to see,” she said.
“It was one of those days when you’re saying you’ll never see it again,” she said.
They had a good view of the stage as King began to speak.
“It was melody,” she said. “It was rhythm. The way he put the melody and rhythm together to say what he said. . . . It was almost like song.
“I knew at that moment it was the best speech I had ever heard,” she said.
People were on their feet. “It was almost like you were in a church,” she said.
When King finished, she said, people left reluctantly, as if hoping for more.
The Harrises made their way home and turned on the old TV her father had given to them, to watch replays of an event that was already history.
They went on to have two children, and each earned a PhD. The Louisiana sit-in case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the students were exonerated. And in 2004, Southern University awarded Janette Harris an honorary undergraduate degree, 44 years after she was expelled.
Much has changed, they said, but grave threats remain. Janette Harris said their 13-year-old granddaughter complains when Harris talks about the civil rights struggle.
“She says, ‘Nana, I’ve heard it so much.’ And I say, ‘But you don’t understand. You cannot hear it enough.’ ”
Rudolph Harris added: “You cannot let your guard down, (or) you’re going to lose some of the things that you thought you already had.”