August 28th, 1963.
A quarter of a million people descend upon the nation’s capital with visions of change. They hear a speech delivered by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. which will echo loudly and with massive impact into the next century. And they witness one of the most important moments in history, which today President Barack Obama said “gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions”.
Included in that immense sea of faces fifty years ago were three that are now seen at Wurzweiler: Director of Field Education Dr. Ronnie Glassman, and faculty members Dr. Rozetta Wilmore-Schaeffer and Heleena VanRaan. Below, they each share their personal perspective about that historic day and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Dr. Ronnie Glassman
August 28 marks the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. To say it was an honor and a privilege to have been there would be an understatement. I was privileged to be in the midst of so many people, many having come from dangerous southern states enduring difficult times to have their voices heard: the late arriving bus from Mississippi with its freedom fighters clad in overalls having to bear the taunts and rants hurled at their bus as it drove north. They overcame on that day.
We took the Mobilization for Youth bus from a downtown settlement. Driving through D.C. itself, we were greeted by the welcoming committee, endless clusters of people, mostly older Negroes, in front of their stoops, all raising their hands in the V sign, Victory. We were so moved by the reception, the affirmation from them which was so humbling.
Entering Washington, rows and rows of buses, orderly parking, and orderly movement of crowds. We knew President Kennedy was behind this well executed procession through Washington.
As the day continued we reflected that we were there to remove the “coloreds only” signs in the south, to provide jobs and freedom, and rid our country of Jim Crow.
There was caution during the planning phase, “There will be violence.” We New Yorkers knew very well this would not happen. Every mainstream Negro leadership group was sponsoring this: SCLC, CORE, SNCC, NAACP, Bayard Rustin, and the sleeping car porters’ Philip Randolph. WE were going. WE were not violent.
It was a hot sunny day. People were all low key, trying to conserve our energy to get through the day. Movie stars were there, Peter Paul and Mary, inspiring speakers — John Lewis. We waited to hear Martin Luther King. I edged my way closer ending up in front of the reflecting pool to hear him.
But no one ever could imagine that his speech would instantaneously become an everlasting somewhat biblical American Declaration. What speech that we knew or witnessed could surpass this one? It came after “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and “Ask not what your country can do for you.”
“I have a dream…” he said, in that beautiful quivering voice.
The assembled were a speckle of color, the tans, browns, blacks, whites, pinks. Why did we not see black and white those of us who were there, just a whole lot of people, of all ages, well dressed to honor the occasion.
“I have a dream…” he said.
The 250,000 present knew this was a transformational moment. Always they would underestimate the numbers. But we knew. In more recent years they have told the truth.
“I have a dream…” he said.
John Lewis is now a Congressman.
Dr. Rozetta Wilmore-Schaeffer
50 years! I was a child then. It was so long ago but the memory is still fresh. I was a young college student trying to find my voice and make decisions. When I told my Mother and Grandmother that I wanted to attend the March on Washington they forbad me not to go. They expressed their concern about my safety. They believed that the March would evoke violence.
My wise Grandfather was also afraid but he understood my need. He told me “this is a decision you must make just keep yourself safe”. He also told this to my Mother and Grandmother. His wisdom turned my rebellion into a thoughtful decision. I made the decision to go. Mom and Grandma expressed concerns about where I would sleep, whether I would have enough to eat and whether I would be safe with strangers. But I went. I made friends with strangers, we shared sleeping space and we shared food.
I didn’t know I had the well of tears I found. I cried through most of the experience not from sadness but from joy. To be in a place with so many Black people with a single voice overwhelmed me. Several times I was close enough to Dr. King to touch him but dared not. I like everyone else there changed as a result of the experience; I became proud of being a young Black girl. I was proud of this man who was chronologically only a few years older than I, physically only a bit taller than I but he was a social and spiritual giant.
When I returned home to a family who had found a new voice my Mother and Grandmother only wanted to know if I met Dr. King personally, what it felt like to be in the presence of One with a voice, if I met any of the other leaders. We celebrated with a special “Sunday” meal and I shared all the details I could remember. Grandpa said grace before the meal and Grandma added “Keep them safe”. My Grandmother who was not a very demonstrative woman had added all the others, marchers, civil rights leaders and workers to her family prayer list. With that statement I again found the well of tears as did my Mother. I realized the March had also changed those who were not physically present. “We” included so many others, unknown but known because they were Black.
Grandpa said “I am proud you made that decision, this is only the first of many”. I became a young Black woman in my heart and in the eyes of my grandparents and parents.
I came to the US with my parents and brother when I was ten. As I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware I became aware at a pretty young age that most of my friends felt a distinct sense of difference and desire to be separate from Negros (as we called African Americans in the 50′s and 60′s). At home my parents were often bewildered by the overt racism that was demonstrated in this not quite southern city. Segregated movie theaters, segregated housing and more often than not segregated schools. There are two events that served as a catalyst for the development of my social consciousness. I attended a summer camp, which was funded by a private philanthropy, and was integrated, black kids, white kids. The campers were invited to a local country fair. Only the white campers were invited. The second event occurred several years later. Sometime in early 1963 the house of the first black family to integrate an all white neighborhood was firebombed and completely destroyed. I walked past that house as it was still smoldering.
I don’t remember how I heard about the March on Washington but I do remember signing up to go, getting up very early on a very hot day in August joining a huge mass of people in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I heard little of the speeches but I did have a sense of being part of something historical. Being with ordinary people who for the first time felt their own power, were given a voice and beginning to believe that change was possible was a transformative moment in my life. Dr. King’s speech resonates through the generations but for me being in the presence of those who felt the daily insult of Jim Crow and their ability to overcome and resist was the inspiration that changed my life.