It was 1963, and my girlfriend and I had spent the summer in Chicago helping in a day camp program. There was a lot of talk in the community about a march in Washington, D.C., for jobs and freedom. I was particularly interested in the march because I had seen firsthand the results of racism while working a couple of years in Chicago and had become aware of the racism I had grown up with in a small town in Ohio.
I also knew one of the speakers was going to be Martin Luther King Jr. I had followed his leadership in the movement and was inspired by his book Stride Toward Freedom about the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
My girlfriend had to get back to a new teaching job, but I had time before my junior year at Manchester College to take part. I signed up for a train that was headed to Washington. It was exciting to ride out with a diverse group of people from many backgrounds who all had a passion for justice and equality of opportunity.
When we got to Washington, I was awed by the number of people unloading from trains, buses and cars. It seemed like (it took) a long time to assemble, but as we did, we found ourselves in a huge sea of humanity, all patient and friendly, many carrying signs.
The march was short. It was the distance from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. It was more of a mass movement of people. But people were excited and boisterous as we sang freedom songs along the way.
I got about halfway up the side of the reflecting pool before we stopped because all the space ahead was filled. People sat or stood or dangled their feet in the reflecting pool while we listened to musicians and speakers on the stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial. There were loudspeakers placed around the perimeter so everyone could hear. Some people had brought along portable radios tuned to stations carrying the events of the day. The sound from the radios was not synced exactly with the loudspeakers because of the time of sound travel in the atmosphere.
There were cheers and applause as the program went forward and we heard from a number of speakers. John Lewis’ speech was especially well received. But there was an anticipation in the crowd. I could almost feel people awaiting the address of King. What would he say? Would he be as eloquent as we had heard him on the news and other places? When he was introduced, an electricity went through the crowd and everyone fell silent. As he spoke, people rose to their feet and punctuated his speech with applause and shouts. He did not disappoint.
I have little memory of what happened after the long standing ovation he received at the end of his speech, even of my return home. But I knew in my heart that his speech would be long remembered.
A few years later, King came to Chicago while I was teaching school there and led a series of marches protesting unfair real estate practices. My wife and I were privileged to take part in those marches, and my wife worked the switchboard in his office. King’s strength and love in the face of bigotry, hatred, and discrimination have been a continuing inspiration in my life.