Reflecting back, 1963 was a very interesting period in my life. In my hometown of Milwaukee, Wis., conversations with friends and family often turned to the turmoil going on in the South. I remember wanting to be part of the “freedom riders,” but my mother was not about to agree to that. She probably realized my “ride” would be over just as soon as some KKK member called me a name. In fact I can hear her words today: “Girl, you don’t know anything about the South, and you would soon be hanging from a tree.”
My brother Dennis, who was 10 years old at the time, was more interested in riding his bicycle and going to the Lapham Park swimming pool. Within a few months, protest marching soon was part of the summertime activity of Dennis and our cousins (Barbara, Edie, Patti and Beverly). I remember the dime stores (Woolworth) still wasn’t too willing to let black folks eat at the counters. My first time ever eating at Woolworth was when my aunt Lodine (my mother’s youngest sister) treated me to lunch, and I was constantly wondering when we would be asked to leave. Lucky for me, my family was not afraid to stand up and fight back for their rights.
In June of 1963, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi while getting out of his car in the driveway. The governor of Alabama was George Wallace. He had run for and won the office on the slogan of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” 1963 was when Dr. King wrote his now famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail. It appeared to me that every night, somewhere in the South, black people were being brutalized or murdered. TV had started to show what was going on in places like Birmingham, and scenes of dogs and firehoses being used on young people sent chills up your spine. The hatred spoken by Bull Connor, police commissioner of Birmingham, made young black people like myself wonder how long before these events would come to my town.
When my stepmother Martina asked me to travel with her to the March on Washington, I had no idea that this would be a defining historical moment in history as well as my life. At the time, I think I was more excited about going to Washington, D.C. for the first time than about the real significance of the march.
Once we boarded the train at the Polk Street Station and began the journey, I soon learned from the participants just how important this journey would be. I stayed up almost all night, listening to the elders, educators, ministers, and grassroots folks talk about their expectations for the march.
In 1963, many women went to the march wearing skirts and dresses (no overalls). I myself wore a two-piece skirt and blouse, silk stockings and my bare-back sling shoes (no tennis shoes). My stepmother wore a black dress and flat-heel shoes. We took our food in a shoe box. The food that would keep without spoiling immediately was fried chicken and pound cake for dessert. I took a photo of Martina eating chicken while soaking her feet in the reflecting pool on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial where all the speeches would be made.
One thing I will always remember is how orderly and even quiet the marchers were. The newspapers said 250,000 people attended, but being there in person I think that number was significantly off. If I had to guess, I would say maybe a million. Walking around the grounds that day was something you had to experience. There are moments in our lives I think that can’t be defined-the birth of children, the loss of friends and parents. Events such as these are often hard to put in words.
Simply put, it was more than my black eyes could see.
I did not know Dr. King’s speech had been carried on TV until I returned home. More and more, I started to understand what a historical event I had been part of. I think many who were present did not really hear Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. It had been a very long day, and by the time Dr. King came to the podium, I was either taking photos or helping Martina film with her Super 8 camera.
When one of the main organizers, A. Philip Randolph, made his opening remarks, I had finally got to a place where I could see part of his face. Future Atlanta congressman John Lewis, a young man who was National Chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) stated that day, “Without meaningful legislation, blacks will march through the South.” I later learned there had been controversy about John Lewis’ speech when a advance draft described President Kennedy’s civil rights bill as “too little, too late.” It has been reported that Randolph appealed to him, and the speech was toned down.
Another interesting thing that surprised me at the time was the number of Hollywood stars in attendance: Marlon Brando, Charleston Heston, Paul Newman, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Josephine Baker, Ossie Davis, Dick Gregory, and Harry Belafonte, who was a close friend of Dr. King and who organized the Hollywood participation.
Returning to Chicago, I remember that the Chicago Sun-Times had written some off-color remarks about the Chicago contingent, so many got off the train and began a protest march to the newspaper’s offices.
Organizers had hoped for a civil rights bill, but President Kennedy would not commit, probably afraid of a backlash against the Democrats if he did. Sadly, he would be assassinated three months later (Nov. 22, 1963) in Dallas. The civil rights bill Dr. King and others wanted during the March on Washington did not come until 1964 when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.
The March on Washington is a day I will never forget and during the 20th anniversary (1983), I was able to attend with my brother Dennis who was stationed in Washington, D.C. That, too, was a significant day in our history.