A half-century after a mighty throng, one quarter million strong, jammed the National Mall, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is often recalled in a few words from a short speech by a beloved martyr.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,’’ preached the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. “I have a dream today!’’
But the march was so much more. It was a joyful celebration of pride, dignity and hope. A peaceful protest against segregation, injustice and poverty. A demand on the president, the Congress and all Americans to fulfill the nation’s foundational promise of universal liberty.
That day, black and white, old and young, sang, wept and sweated as one. And that day, King was a hero among giants. Others also spoke with passion and urgency, like John Lewis, now a U.S. congressman from Georgia.
He was 23, angry and impatient, so radical that the civil rights elders censored his speech. He’s the only speaker from that day who’s still alive.
As president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he became one of the march’s leaders, the “Big Six:’’ King, Lewis, the Congress of Racial Equality’s James Farmer — behind bars in Louisiana on march day — labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, and the National Urban League’s Whitney Young.
For them and all whom they inspired, the march wasn’t a culmination, but an inspiration to push forward.
In its aftermath, the struggle intensified. Weeks later, four little girls died in the bombing of a black church in Birmingham.
The next year, Ku Klux Klansmen murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Shwerner in Nashoba County, Mississippi.
On March 7, 1965, known as Bloody Sunday, an Alabama state trooper cracked open John Lewis’s head as he led hundreds of peaceful marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
Six months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 took effect.
But two months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down one of the act’s key sections, unemployment and black incarceration rates remain high, so as some veterans of the original march return to Washington for anniversary events, they warn that the struggle isn’t over.
“The signs were very similar: Voters’ rights. Voting justice for everyone. We want jobs,’’ said Shirley Johnson, a retired Miami-Dade educator who attended the march 50 years ago, and marched again on Saturday with her daughter, grandson and a Haitian-American man she mentored as a child. “A few words have changed, but it was the same message.’’
Here, then, are four stories of Floridians who were there on that August afternoon 50 years ago.
Starting with student sit-ins in the spring of 1963, the civil rights movement took on a new dimension for Bob Adelman, the photojournalist whose frame of King reaching his right hand to the heavens as he wound up his “I Have a Dream’’ speech, is the March on Washington’s iconic image.
The movement — or as Adelman thinks of it, “the last battle of the Civil War’’ — became a physical thing to him, not just an idea, as black people placed their bodies where a racist society told them they didn’t belong.