This Year Marks 50th Anniversary of Historic Event
This year marks 50 years since the 1963 March on Washington.The demonstration, led by leaders of the modern civil rights movement including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., took place half a century ago on Aug. 28. The Capitol Hill History Project in collaboration with The Capitol Hill Village held an event "Were You There?" to commemorate the march.
The event was moderated by the Rev. Edward A. Hailes Jr., who learned about the march "at the dinner table" from his father Robert Hailes, who was active in the civil rights movement and the development of the demonstration. It convened at Lutheran Church of the Reformation Feb. 23 and featured panelists who attended the march or were active in the movement at the time of the march.
"The purpose of this event is to stretch and straighten out that question mark and turn it into an exclamation point," said Hailes. "The persons at this table were there."
The panel was the first of many events taking place this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which is best known as the setting for King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
The Center for the Study of Civil and Human Rights Laws will roll the Civil Rights Museum on Wheels into D.C. in early August. The Center also will host an all-day Civil Rights Conference on Aug. 27 in D.C. Additionally, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in collaboration with the King Center will host marches and motorcades from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., with events in the city taking place between the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
And although all of the panelists from February's event were "there" in some capacity, the stories of Aug. 28, 1963, differed through each set of eyes. The panelists included Brig Cabe, Daniel Smith, Courtland Cox, Judy Bardacke, Nellie Hailes and the Rev. Reginald Green.
Daniel Smith had a particular take on the event. In addition to the march taking place in the Nation's Capital, it occurred on the heels of the death of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was shot in the back in his driveway on June 12, 1963. Smith, who worked as a social worker at the time of the march and attended the event with a friend, commented on the atmosphere regarding the safety of those who participated.
"There had been murders and hangings," Smith said. "Police had been beating people. I was very resistant to go. I didn't want to die."
But the march itself turned out to be a peaceful demonstration. "There were nuns, priests, women with baby carriages and men with children on their shoulders," said Smith. He recalled a performance Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and fought emotions when he talked about King's speech.
Panelist Bardacke described variety of attendees and their many modes of transportation used to get to the march.. She rode a bus from New York with a friend to the demonstration. She was a friend of Bayard Rustin, chief organizer of the march and was 23-years-old at the time. "People came from far away – over 1,000 charter buses and over 20 charter trains, all to be a part of this," said Bardacke.
Unlike Bardacke, everyone wasn't able to attend the march in person, but many people watched the event. Brig Cabe, one of those who watched the march on television, was a son of Asian and Caribbean immigrants who took drove from Chicago to Atlanta and passed himself as a photographer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in order to be a part of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Having been arrested at a sit-in in Chicago over school desegregation, he found himself engulfed in the march and its unfolding with special attention to the "I Have a Dream" speech.
The speech, which is now heralded as Dr. King's most influential by many, carried the message of equality and liberty for all, including African-Americans and other marginalized groups.
Courtland Cox, a 1963 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee representative and steering committee member, recounted King's speech and how it provided answers to often asked questions. "Then, there was this prevailing question that journalists and others continually asked of the movement: 'What do the Negroes want?' And in that speech, Dr. King had the answer. 'We have a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,'" said Cox.
The event also featured a speech by veteran journalist Paul Delaney, essay readings by local students and selections by Friendship Public Charter School's choir. It was inspired by a member of the Capitol Hill Village who reminisced about the march to a small group of people. The organization then decided that they would create an event to showcase that experience.
"We wanted young people to hear the stories, so we reached out wider to create the event," said Judy Canning, a member of the "Were You There?" planning committee.