45 years later, Obama carries on King vision

August 28, 2008|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

One was a Quaker, a nurse involved in the civil rights movement, sitting among the tens of thousands gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. One was a New Yorker who had made a last-minute pilgrimage. Another was a seminary classmate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., standing near him on the platform, stepping closer as King strode to the podium - a sign of support for a man who was a lightning rod for controversy.

And then there was the Rev. Vernon Dobson, a civil rights activist who worked with King, stunned as 250,000 people were hushed into silence by a sermon that revolved around four simple words.

I have a dream

Dobson wept.

On the 45th anniversary of King's immortal speech, Sen. Barack Obama will accept the Democratic presidential nomination and address the nation as he moves one step closer in his attempt to make history as the nation's first black president.

A post-civil rights candidate, Obama was born two years before the March on Washington, in a year when Mississippi was jailing freedom riders. He grew up with the benefits that came from the movement and the challenges that came from his own unique background. He was raised by a white mother and had a largely absentee African father and an upbringing that brought him from Hawaii to Indonesia and back.

Still, observers say those watching Obama speak at the convention in Denver tonight will view a black man addressing the nation in a historic moment that in some ways fulfills the dream King articulated on Aug. 28, 1963.

"The original March on Washington became a symbol of hope," said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a trilogy on King. "People expected a riot and were stunned that it turned out to be not only something positive but something that went to the core of our patriotic values. Now, Obama is trying to stand as the leader of patriotic values and I think people are still blinking their eyes that it's only 45 years later."In 1963 authorities stockpiled plasma because they expected violence. Liquor stores were closed. Two major league baseball games that were supposed to take place nearby were canceled. "So what's easy to forget is just how much the things we take for granted have changed," said Branch. "Then it was assumed that black people couldn't gather in large numbers anywhere near politics without upheaval. Now, you've got a black person contending for the highest office in the country. It's a pretty big change."

For those who were alive to witness King's speech, the timing couldn't be more appropriate.

"It's beautiful," said Eliza C. Smith, 88, of Millersville, a former NAACP leader in Anne Arundel County. "It makes me feel very proud to have lived long enough to witness this. I'm alive and I'm watching what's going on with great pride and which I hope will be history-making."

Smith was a stay-at-home mom in New York at the time of King's speech. She was going to watch it on television but then she and a friend decided to drive to D.C. instead. She remembers the spirit of camaraderie there. People sitting on the grass and sharing food, talking to complete strangers.

But what she remembers most, what everyone present seems to remember most, is the silence. There was an almost eerie silence that enveloped The Mall when King took to the podium after more than a dozen speakers before him.

"Everything was quiet," she said. "You couldn't hear all those people sitting there, you couldn't hear anyone talking. No noise. All those people and no noise at all," she says, still incredulous at the thought.

Dobson, now 84, can't talk about the speech without getting emotional. The minister emeritus of Union Baptist Church in Druid Hill, Dobson helped organize 25 busloads of people who went to Washington for the march. He remembers the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the ride and the license plates from states across the country.

"The first shock was to see the people coming from everywhere," said Dobson. "And this is the truth, there were buses lined up from it looked like state to state. In my lifetime, it was the most magnificent thing I've ever seen."

By the time King took to the podium, the atmosphere was like a church worship experience, said Dobson. "We knew it was a historic moment," he said. "When he opened his mouth and he said, 'I have a dream,' it mesmerized the crowd. I've never been in an experience since where a man or a woman had the ability to bring to unity that many people so that there was a holy hush over the whole crowd that allowed everything he said to be heard."

It was also an integrated crowd, Dobson remembered, with white and black folks mingling and working together.

Linda S. Schulte was in the minority. A high school student at the time, Schulte took the train to the march with a group of friends, all white. "We were all kind of involved in the civil rights thing at the time," said Schulte, 62, of Howard County. "We just had strong feelings about being part of history and all of us felt it was the right thing to do."

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