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.
“The body was chained and beaten, and now it was being liberated by going to forbidden places,’’ said Adelman, 82, of Miami Beach.
Volunteering with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Adelman spent years documenting the struggle in the segregated Deep South and racially tense Northern cities.
His pictures ran in all the major news magazines and in numerous books, the latest just released by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King once led: I Have A Dream: A 50th Year Testament to the March that Changed America.
The New York-born son of liberal Eastern European immigrants, Adelman says he was “very idealistic, and a lifelong Democratic Socialist.’’
He was close enough to King call him “Doc.’’
On Aug. 28, 1963, the body of the movement placed itself in the heart of a nation that denied equality to millions of its citizens. Adelman went to Washington “to catch my heroes and the spirit of the movement and the mood ... I had one eye on events and another on history.’’
It would never have happened without that spring’s direct-action campaign in Birmingham, Ala., Adelman said.
“The country was totally frozen. Congress was dominated by Dixiecrats. The court had spoken, to little effect. No president had yet said that segregation was wrong.’’
But President John F. Kennedy saw the shocking images of young demonstrators under attack, “and announced he would (propose) legislation. So for us it was both a celebration that race and the end of segregation were on the agenda, and a protest because it was far from clear that Congress was going to pass the legislation.’’
Adelman, who photographed police blasting demonstrators with fire hoses, said “Doc’’ told photographers not to rescue but to shoot.
“He said, ‘We need the pictures,’ because it was the photographs and movies that showed what segregation meant.’’
That day on the mall, Adelman stayed close to the podium, where he caught King in a variety of expressions.
“Most people don’t appreciate what he went through,’’ Adelman said. “He was jailed 31 times. He traveled 26 million miles, most of it to raise money and give speeches. He was stabbed, bombed, beaten up.
“People were always attacking him and he would reason with them. He went through agony, in a religious sense.’’
King, he said, “was our moral leader and wiser than all of us. A truly enlightened human being.’’
CAROLE ANN TAYLOR
Carole Ann Taylor and her sister, Priscilla Taylor, were teenagers when their parents took them to the march. They lived in the New York City suburbs. Their father, The Rev. Carl Taylor, preached at a Baptist church in Harlem and mother Harriet “Toni Belle’’ Taylor was a community activist.
Carole Ann Taylor attended Wilberforce University in Ohio, the oldest private African-American university in the country. She was 19 in 1963, one year older than her sister.
As with many young people, Taylor left the march determined to make a difference. Back at school, “we ended up having to picket ... because they would not cut black students’ hair in the barbershops,’’ she said.
She’d go on to join the National Women’s Political Caucus, worked in Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign, and for Nelson Rockefeller when he was governor of New York and vice president under Gerald Ford.
In the weeks leading up to the march, “there was anticipation that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event — very special, and we were very proud to be part of it,’’ Taylor recalled.
And because of her father’s connections, the family could get close to the action, Taylor said.
“My father was always involved in NAACP and the Urban League, and as a minister he knew King and Wyatt Tee Walker,’’ another Harlem pastor, King’s chief of staff and first full-time director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“I can remember walking along the water,’’ the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, “almost all the way to the front, being off to the left of the podium.’’
The crowd swelled to 250,000, and authorities were convinced there would be riots, but for Taylor, “there was never any trepidation…It was a celebration. A homecoming.’’
Nor were there riots.
“All the generations were there,’’ Taylor said, “babies on up to old people.’’
Taylor came to Miami in the late 1970s, when she worked for the Small Business Administration as a public information officer. She settled in Miami after the 1980 race riots.
“I don’t like to call it a riot. I think it was a rebellion,’’ Taylor once told the Miami Herald.
“I believed as a black person that there was opportunity everywhere’’ in Miami, she said. “But it was not until I came to Miami that I actually felt the impact of this whole thing called racism. It was so backward to me, but it was also a challenge. The first thing I did was go into business.’’
Today, she owns Little Havana To Go, a gift shop on Southwest Eighth Street.
In the 1980s, she served as assistant to Mayor Maurice Ferré and led the Florida Caribbean Coalition of 100 Black Women. Her list of community affiliations includes executive committee of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and chairperson of the Heritage Tourism Committee and Black Hospitality Initiative, and on the board of the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center and the Little Havana Merchants Association.
All this may have happened even if she hadn’t gone on the march, said Taylor, because her parents were politically involved.
Still, she recalled that the speeches, capped by King’s immortal words, “had this huge, transforming effect. It was a message of hope for sure. Then there was the beauty of being out there with so many different kinds of people.’’
ALBERT D. MOORE , SR.
When King delivered his “I Have a Dream’’ speech, it wasn’t the first time he’d used some of its soaring rhetoric in an oration.
And it wasn’t the first time that Albert D. Moore Sr. had heard it.
Moore, 95, a retired Miami-Dade County assistant manager, Daily Bread Food Bank chair and one-time national treasurer of the Congress of Racial Equality, was among a group of civil rights leaders who listened as King rehearsed the speech at Miami’s blacks-only Hampton House motel.
During the march, however, “He put a little more heat in it,’’ Moore once told the Miami Herald. “It was outstanding.’’
Fifty years ago, Moore rode a “freedom train’’ to Washington, D.C., with his college-age son and 45 other Miamians. It left the Allapattah station on Aug. 27 then wound its way north for 12 hours, picking up passengers along the way.
And at every stop, “there was a crowd of people to wish us well,” said Moore, who now lives in Hollywood.
CORE began planning for the march two months in advance. Moore said participants were told “that it was a nonviolent demonstration, and that’s what we practiced. We weren’t having a march to have people fighting and arguing.’’
Joining the march was risky for some black workers whose white bosses would have fired them if they knew they planned to go, Moore said. Some men even showed up at the station in dresses.
Moore often spoke with King on the phone about the movement, what activists should or should not do.
“We needed to keep going to jail,” he said.
But they should never strike back when provoked.
“We learned how to turn the other cheek,” said Moore, who organized sit-ins at segregated downtown Miami lunch counters and department stores that prohibited blacks from trying on clothes or using restrooms.
“They had to desegregate or we’d still be lined up there in the front door,” he said.
Moore wanted his son and two daughters “to come up in a free society. I wanted them to be able to buy the house they wanted to buy. I wanted them to be able to go to the school they wanted to go to. Everybody had to do something and participate. It was good for me. It was good for my soul.”
Moore hails from the tiny town of Gifford, just north of Vero Beach, strictly segregated during his youth. Born to activism, he was only 9 when his father, a school principal, signed him up with the NAACP.
“I could not accept racism as a way of life for me,’’ said Moore.
At Tennessee State University in Nashville, Moore met students who talked about being threatened and beaten just for trying to vote.
After college, Moore got a job with a life insurance company that sent him to Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, and ultimately Miami, where he settled his family in Liberty City and joined CORE.
“CORE was the first organization to demonstrate against segregation in every way,’’ Moore said. “That gave me a deeper interest in the civil rights movement because I could do something with some action in it. That’s one of things that interested me; you could do something, not just talk.’’
Framed honors for his decades of social-justice work adorn Moore’s room, and if he were physically able to do so, he’d have gone to Washington this week. Nonetheless, Moore clearly recalls that day when he stood on the mall under a straw sun hat.
“Blacks and whites, they were singing, especially all the young folks,’’ he said. “People were reaching for your hand. It’s a funny thing, I never had so many white men to grab my hand and shake it as that day. ‘I’m so-and-so from so-and-so, and what we do in my town is so-and-so. Glad to meet you.’ People were talking with one another like they saw one another a week ago and never seen before.
“We had a good time.’’
JOHN DUE, JR.
John Due and his late wife, Patricia Stephens Due, were among Miami’s best known and most visible civil rights/social justice advocates.
They marched on Washington in 1963 as newlyweds active in the Congress of Racial Equality.
Now a 78-year-old widower living with a daughter in Atlanta, Due left his native Indiana for law school at Florida A&M University in 1960. A life of activism followed. These days, he’s working primarily with ex-offenders reentering society.
When he speaks of the event, Due seeks to “separate the reality from the mythology.’’ The reality is that there was tension and conflict among competing interests — civil rights and labor — and many who rallied at the Lincoln Memorial had begun the day angry.
Then something happened, and everything changed, he said.
That “something’’ was King’s fervent message of hope to the largest crowd ever on the National Mall.
King “was always trying to balance the anger of the youth and reality of the power structure of America,’’ said Due.
That balance was sorely tested that day, when the young firebrand John Lewis, speaking for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “made the mistake of having his speech already written, and when the power structure saw it, they edited it,’’ Due said.
Lewis, now a Georgia congressman, intended to say that if America didn’t wake up and do the right thing, “we shall march thru Georgia like Sherman,’’ the Civil War Union general whose 1864 “march to the sea’’ decimated much of the state — and the Confederacy’s resources.
“Those are still fighting words even today,’’ said Due.
King followed. He spoke for only six minutes, about the same amount of time as President Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, Due noted.
“He did not speak,’’ Due said. “He sang a song, equal to the song sung by Lincoln, and we had such feelings of love for everyone. There was an immediate transformation of our mood. He displaced our anger.’’
But the mood didn’t last. The Dues hitched a ride to New York.
“As soon as we got there, [CORE founder] James Farmer arrived from Louisiana., where they had a hit out on him. He was very upset, and described that the only way he was able to get out was to lie in a casket. That’s when all that love disappeared and the anger came back.’’
The Dues went on to lead protests and demonstrations across Florida. They were jailed and attacked. Patricia Due wore dark glasses for the rest of her life, shielding eyes damaged by a police tear-gas canister.
She was often seen pushing her infant daughters in strollers at rallies.
Tananarive Due, is a novelist, professor and former Miami Herald reporter. Sister Johnita Due, is a Turner Broadcasting senior counsel, active with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“I’m trying to tell my children and grandchildren what my generation did,’’ John Due said. “Our purpose was to try to change America — not to assimilate black people into the power structure, but to change materialism...I’m trying to teach the children that life is not about a secluded big house away from the inner city.’’
The march, he said, “was not an event to me.. It was just one step. We must continue with the next step.’’