‘It Was Like a Civil Rights Woodstock’: An Oral History of the March on Washington

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    DR. KING’S “I HAVE A DREAM SPEECH

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    Vivian:
    The thing that hit me was here we’re sitting there and WEB DuBois had just died the morning before in Ghana. Here was the great genius, the African-American genius, one of the great geniuses of American life who had died…and here that afternoon we were gonna see the rise of Martin King, the great spiritual genius of African-American life who was, in fact, to be the spiritual leader for a generation of people.

    Clayton:
    We were in the hotel where Dr. King was staying and people were calling him periodically going, ‘Another bus has come up from South Carolina so we’ve got a few more people here. We just saw a train come in from the West Coast, so we’ve got more people.’ They kept feeding him this info about how many people were coming, never knowing until morning, cause this was about 4 a.m. when we finally finished everything.

    Dr. King, although he had stayed up all night working on that speech, that’s not the speech that he prepared. He got there and was so mesmerized and so impacted by the number of people, because as far as you could see [there was] nothing but a sea of people. He changed his speech and that’s when the ‘I have a dream’ came, but that was not included initially. He changed some context of his speech after he was just so taken back by this crowd.

    Bernice King, youngest child of SCLC President Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King:
    My mother felt like it was a very significant day, a turning point for the movement. She felt that my father was at his best. The point in which he started reciting the ‘I have a dream’ portion, he went away from the paper and she said it was as if heaven had come to earth in that moment, like the Kingdom of God had descended on the Lincoln Memorial right there in our midst.

    Worrell:
    It was just amazing. The atmosphere was at such a high pitch and love and excitement. And then after Martin’s speech, it took it to another level. You never thought you would reach a level like that.

    People were just speechless and you really didn’t grasp the whole speech and where he was going. [It wasn't] until after you got on the buses and you start talking with each other that you realize the powerful speech that was made, the commitment that he had and the road that he wanted us to travel.

    Mitchell:
    At that point, I don’t think I had any concept of how important and significant his speech was. You hear the words, not only from him, but from others who were speaking there too, but I didn’t really have any concept at that time of how significant that was. To me, the significance of that event was that there were people gathered there in search of jobs, economic opportunity and civil rights. But Dr. King’s speech kind of focused everyone on what the real objective was and that is fair treatment and wanting to be viewed by what you are and what you do, not by the color of your skin.

    King:
    It was a really good feeling when they left. It was a feeling that they were going to be able to get that legislation, the Civil Rights Act, passed. So that was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history and I think everybody felt a sense of inspiration and hopefulness and excitement because when they were coming out of Birmingham, which was a very tough period.

    Williams-Omilami:
    I remember going back to school with kids that had not gone to the march and sort of feeling different than them. You felt like you were special, like you had been a part of something really special that they hadn’t gotten a chance to witness, and you just hoped that it wouldn’t stop, that feeling wouldn’t stop and go back to that feeling of fear before of people burning crosses in our yard and threatening phone calls and being afraid that something bad was going to happen. All that left me and I just felt hope and freedom.

    MOVING FORWARD

    Lewis:
    There was fear in 1963, now the fear is gone. People feel freer and the march helped liberate and free not just a people, but a nation.

    King:
    I was only five months of age when this took place in 1963, so I’m excited to be a part of the [50th anniversary march]. And it means a great deal to know that my father’s life, and death, was not in vain. Fifty years later, perhaps things are just as bad in some regards. For the masses of people in the African-American communities, we still have great disparities. So it’s almost like on the one hand there’s a sense of excitement, but there’s still a sense of sadness as well that we have not progressed as far as we probably should have.

    But I feel excited about it, I feel it’s an opportunity for us to really begin again, to get it right and I’m just glad to be alive at this point in the history of our nation

    Bernard Lafayette is the executive board chairman of SCLC and a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

    Xernona Clayton is the creator and founder of the Trumpet Awards, an organization honoring African American achievement, and creator of the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.

    Ralph Worrell is a leading advocate for the SCLC and works at the organization’s Atlanta headquarters.

    Joseph E. Lowery is a Methodist minister known as the “dean of the civil rights movement.” He is a 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree and the founder of the Joseph E. Lowery Institute at Clark Atlanta University.

    CT Vivian serves as the president of SCLC. He is the founder of the CT Vivian Leadership Institute and a 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree.

    Elizabeth Williams-Omilami is the CEO of Hosea Feed the Hungry, a nonprofit organization started by her father, and an actress and human rights activist.

    George Mitchell is President of the Illinois State NAACP.

    John Lewis is the U.S. Rep. for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, serving since 1987. He is Senior Chief Deputy Whip of the House and a 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree.

    Nan Grogan Orrock is a Georgia State Senator representing district 36. She served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1987 to 2006 and was the first woman elected House Majority Whip.

    Bernice King is the CEO of the King Center. She has a master’s degree in Divinity from the Candler School of Theology and a Juris Doctor in law from Emory University.

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