50 years later and a March on Washington is happening to remember and honor the famous speech which the American activist asked for change. Have things really changed since the day the speech was given? Yes they have. Can they change for the better still? Yes.
So much has happened in just the last few months with the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial and the death of young 17 year old Trayvon Martin. The discussion of the law and how it treats those who are not white became front and center conversation for many. The noticible difference between those who attended the first March on Washington and the speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I Have A Dream and today’s march is the people themselves. Today’s march brings together more people of all colors, religious backgrounds and cultures in support of the same dream. Equality and justice for all.
Those who were there for the very first march have memories of their own. Some are good and some are not so good. Their fight helped to change history.
Don Cash, a young high school graduate, had decided to become part of the original March on Washington one day after he finished work at a local warehouse. Today the Baptist layman is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union’s Minority Coalition and a board member of both the Southern Chrisitian Leadership Conferance and the NAACP.
When asked what he thinks about the dream Mr. Cash responded, ““I think we got a long ways to go but I do think that there’s been a lot of changes. I don’t think you’ll ever see what Martin Luther King dreamed in reality, in total. I think we’ll always have to strive for perfection. The dream that he had is a perfect world and I think that in order to be perfect, you have to continue to work at it.”
Dorothy Cotton, education director of the Southern Christian Leadershop Conference and which was co-founded by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960’s gave her opinion on why she joined in the original march. Dorothy was part of a group of civil rights activists who stayed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee when Dr. King was assasinated.
“African-American people en masse and all of our wonderful white allies who worked and suffered with us, we had confidence ‘cause we felt it, ‘cause we had been working to change this evil system for years. African-American folk had changed how we saw ourselves. We were no longer going to let an evil system define who we were.”
A former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Reverend Eugene Picket, was the paster of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Atlanta, Georgia during the 1960’s. Reverend Picket had the honor of meeting Dr. King at a luncheon which was set up by a dentist who was a member of Rev. Picket’s. Dr. Kind’s own children were integrated into the same elementary school which was attended by Reverend Picket’s own daughter’s. He speaks about his experience.
“I had served churches in the South since 1952. Improving race relations and working for racial justice had been a high priority for my ministry. So the march was a moving and affirming experience as well as an energizing one. I went back to my congregation with a deeper commitment to work to further Dr. King’s dream. When I became president of our Unitarian Universalist Association I continued to make racial justice a high priority for our movement.”
Other faith’s came together in this cause. Rabbi Richard G. Hirsh, who is a former executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, was the founding director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington during the years 1962 to 1973. Rabbi Hirsh had the opportunity to meet with Dr. King in 1962 and organized the Jewish participation in the march on Washington. What does he think about progress since the historical march?
“We have come a long way, but as society advances in the direction of what yet needs to be done, we recognize that our perception of the ‘perfect society’ also advances. The more we advance the more we see that more has to be done. Our perception of what was called the ‘Great Society’ is like the horizon. The more we proceed, the more we recognize how far we have to go. The march was very important and very successful … but in the final analysis it was only an important link in a long arduous chain of events and daily sacrifices of millions of Americans in a drama which is still unfolding.”
One man is the last living speaker at the March on Washington in 1962 and his name is Representative John Lewis, a democrat from Georgia. Representative Lewis is an ordained Baptist minister and was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the 1960’s. The Committee was known for the organized sit-in’s and other civile right movement activities. How he thinks faith had a part of the march in 1963.
“My faith has been strengthened to be not afraid but to be courageous and find a way to get in the way because of the March on Washington. I saw on that day hundreds of thousands of people representing different religious communities. I saw people carrying signs. I saw people marching with their feet, saw people speaking up and speaking out with their feet through their faith. My faith has been strengthened, and if it hadn’t been for the March on Washington, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”
Once training to become a priest had been completed with the Josephites in New York state, a pact was made between the Reverend James McLinden and another novice priest, to participate in the March on Washintong. Both priests had received training with an order of Catholic priests and brothers who were committed to working within the African-American comminities. When asked what his one lasting memory is of the original walk.
“I think the lasting thing was just the exuberance of the crowd itself. We had the sense and the spirit and the speakers, and just the crowd — I mean it covered that whole area. It was a very wonderful experience, and I’m very glad we made that intention in the novitiate to do that.”
The Reverend Gilbert H. Caldwell, who was the assistant pastor of the Union Methodist Church and director of the Cooper Community Center, both located in Boston, Massachussettes at the time of the march, had taken part in many civil rights activities. Reverend Caldwell introduced Dr. King at a rally in Boston Common. On what touched his heart and made him cry.
“The interracial rainbow of people in attendance at the march brought tears to my eyes. I was a 29-year-old assistant pastor when I went to the march. I had been discouraged by the fact that many white persons in the church had not yet embraced the meaning of the civil rights movement for their own faith journeys. Some Methodists in Boston, pastors and lay people, were bothered by the name of the march. They felt that the use of the word ‘on’ Washington was too provocative and militant. And, they had been brainwashed into believing that the march would end up in violence. The presence of white persons at the march was a source of encouragement to me that is difficult to explain.”
The ties of change were bound between the Reverend Robert Graetz, a white Lutheran minister, and his now famous civil rights activist neighbor Rosa Parks. Rev. Graetz pastored a largely black congregation in Montgomery, Alabama during the 1950 and resided in Ohio when the first march occurred.
“Even though we had had many other people from different faiths and different ethnic groups taking part in particular parts of the civil rights movement, it was clear that that massive turnout of people — ethnicities, all economic levels, everything imaginable — (showed) there’s something to the promise of the beloved community that Dr. King used to talk about. It gave all of us a real boost in terms of what the possibilities might be.”
Another important civil rights leader was Medgar Evers, who was murdered in June 1963. Mr. Evers widow, Myrlie Evers, who was scheduled to speak that day found it too much heart ache to bear and never made it to the stage. She finally gave an invocation speech at President Obama’s second inauguration. She shares her reason for not giving the first speech.
“Perhaps missing the opportunity to speak at the march in Washington 1963 — and the first program is printed with my name on it — was the best thing because I was hurt; I was very, very angry. I was dealing with a split personality — one that said, ‘Move forward; don’t hold the anger within you,’ and the other part of me said, ‘Vengeance will be mine.’”
To hear the entire speech given by Dr. King click the link:
To read the original speech verbatim:
We will continue moving forward and with that we will need to keep seeking change until there is justice and equality for all. Thank you for still believing in a dream. Thank you Dr. King for sharing your dream with all of us.