March for freedom

Jo Ann Robinson

August 27, 1993|By Jo Ann Robinson

IN THE spring of 1992, a group of students at the Barclay School who had been designated "Barclay Civil Rights Scholars" conducted oral history interviews with seven Marylanders who participated in the 1963 March on Washington: Educator Samuel Banks, Del. Hattie Harrison, humanitarian Sidney Hollander, historian Charles Johnson, philosopher Richard McKinney, retired Congressman Parren Mitchell and Judge Robert B. Watts.

The interviewees relived with the students the sights, sounds and feelings of that memorable August day. Each recalled the searing heat and the enormity of the crowd. Today the estimated quarter million people who attended the event may seem unremarkable. But in 1963 it was an awesome display. Ms. Harrison, who had two young children, kept to the edge of the crowd. Still, she recalled that her sons were "caught up in the excitement."

Many of the marchers were aware the Kennedy administration feared violence. Dr. Johnson, who was an army officer at the time, recounted how the military planned to deal with anddisturbances:

"The main plan was to have people stationed in buildings at intervals so that they could look out the windows to control the crowd," he said. "One officer was supposed to have been in the Washington Monument, looking over the entire area. There were reserve forces around Washington, and if the crowd had turned disorderly they would have been called in."

The marchers not only confounded the government's expectations of mayhem but affirmed the capacity of Americans to become "one from many." Dr. McKinney displayed slides he took that day and spoke of the throngs of "all kinds of people -- black people, white people, American Indians and people of every nationality and race."

Parren Mitchell described people who "came in wheel chairs, blind people walking together with their canes, old people, young people, little babies. . .''

Though the "flower children" of the 1960s believed that they were the inventors of love-ins, and that Woodstock was the genesis of a new spiritual communalism in American life, those who gathered in Washington on August 28, 1963 achieved a vision of justice and a "high" of shared purpose long before the hippies.

Without benefit of drugs, rock music or orgies, the Washington marchers rejoiced in their common faith and determination. Mr. Mitchell captured the spirit of the day: "People who didn't even know each other were hugging. People were helping each other out. Some had not brought food and those who had shared with them."

Sidney Hollander remembered the event in similar terms. "It felt like being part of a liberating army," he declared.

It was also a defining moment of history that no one wanted to miss. Mr. Mitchell recalled that his sister-in-law, Juanita Mitchell, "got there late and couldn't get up to the platform. They had this wire mesh fence to keep the people back, but she climbed over that fence. Her husband said it was the most comical sight."

Judge Watts was particularly struck that day by "an old white man -- he must have been 80 years old -- who could hardly walk, but he kept saying 'I'm going to make it, I don't care what happens.' His whole attitude was defiant. It was such an impressive thing. This man, old and white, standing up for my rights."

New Age acolytes would later talk about "levitation.'' But the Washington marchers had already experienced it. "This was high drama," Mr. Mitchell recalled. "Everyone's spirits were up." Dr. Banks told the students he was "euphoric" that day -- and then had to explain to them: "that means 'very happy.' "

The marchers' spirits were further lifted by the mighty voice of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. "When she got through singing," Dr. McKinney reported, "all those 250,000 people felt that they were one people."

Then Martin Luther King Jr. transformed that sense of oneness ** into an unforgettable dream. Apparently his oratory that day started in a fairly routine way, so pedestrian at first that some guests began preparing to leave. But then King opened himself completely to the passion of the crowd, put his script aside and produced not just one of the great speeches of all time but a prophetic standard by which the U.S. would be measured down through history.

"I cried," Parren Mitchell recalled. "I can't begin to describe the emotion I felt, nor the emotions I saw coming from other people. As we [walked away] we were singing 'We Shall Overcome' and gradually the words changed to come out 'Deep in our hearts, we do believe we have overcome today.' And I thought we had."

The young Barclay scholars also learned about the angry speech that John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had planned to give before being forced to tone it down. They learned of the four little girls who were killed by a racist's bomb at their church in Birmingham, Ala., four weeks later. They struggled to come to terms with the assassination of Dr. King and with the recent upwellings of violence in Los Angeles.

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