About the March

On a hot and humid day 50 years ago, 250,000 people converged on the nation’s capital for one of the largest and most impactful human rights events in our country’s history. There, amid the monuments commemorating great Americans, everyday citizens, black and white, joined together to send a message to their fellow countrymen. It was the message that, from this point forward, we needed to work together to resolve the issue of racial inequity. We needed to end the injustices left from slavery, the peculiar institution our nation inherited from our Founding Fathers and codified in the documents of our national founding and subsequent laws.

The official title of the event was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Now known simply as the “March on Washington,” it is considered a pivotal moment and turning point in the Civil Rights Movement attended by people from all walks of life and, of course, by students.

Students from Johnson C. Smith University were among the many attendees who filled planes, cars and buses to make the trip to Washington, D.C. New York’s Motor Transit Authority ran extra trains to accommodate crowds as 450 buses left New York City from Harlem. At one point, more than 100 buses an hour were headed through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, according to Maryland police. The march drew a larger press corps than President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, as roughly 1,700 news correspondents joined the standard Washington beltway journalists.

Future JCSU alumnus Tyward Jordan (’77) was 10 years old when he left his home in Jersey City, N.J., for the march.

“We boarded the buses, I remember the singing and the good spirits. When we got to D.C., there were people as far as the eye could see!” he remembered.

The reasons for attending varied as much as the crowd.

JCSU student Madge Lawing-Hopkins (’69) attended with her cousin. Her uncle told them that he was unable to go, so they had to go. 

Rita Mikey (’79), a future JCSU graduate, was also 10 years old at the march and remembers how the ranks of the marchers swelled as they made the walk from the 14th Street bridge toward the Washington Monument.

Merely participating in the march required courage. The event was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history at the time. None of the attendees knew beforehand what awaited them. This was a time when Black Americans were attacked with fire hoses, dogs, rocks, fists and weapons at other political protests.

“People were afraid to be identified publicly [with the Civil Rights Movement] in the rural South,” recalled Charles Jones (’58), a JCSU alumnus who, as a student, organized sit-ins and protests across the Queen City.

Newspapers were skeptical that the city would not erupt into violence. The Toledo Blade noted that “Washington is bracing itself.” The Times-News (Hendersonville, N.C.) mentioned the preparations for the “Mammoth Rally” as police erected “no parking” signs and the police chief readied 1,900 police and firemen, 2,000 national guardsmen and 2,000 specially trained marshals to “mingle with the crowd.” Soldiers and National Guardsmen were flown into the city from bases in North Carolina and Virginia. Sales of alcohol were suspended.

In essence, the capitol prepared for a violent invasion or, as said more poetically in a Life magazine article, Washington D.C. was suffering “its worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run.”

JCSU alumnus Dr. Clarence R. W. Wade (’48) attended the march. He had heard of the concern about violence and saw that police were ready in case the march should become violent. “It was almost over, and my friend said to me, ‘I feel like something is going to happen.’ Nothing did,” Wade recalled.

Another JCSU alumnus, Sidney Glee (’63), recalled how much uncertainty attendees faced.

“As we all reflect on the March on Washington now, the event and Dr. King’s speech are held in high esteem. But going in, we didn’t know the magnitude of what we were going to experience. In the last few days prior to the march, we were somewhat unsure of how big the event would be, but as morning turned to afternoon, I was able to see the crowd grow to a level beyond our wildest dreams.”

In fact, the march was a peaceful demonstration that showcased the ability of civil rights organizations to work together to unify the Black community toward the goal of attaining equal rights.

“I pondered: Where did all of these people come from? We should be able to totally change this country with this large crowd and energy,” said alumnae and march attendee, Barbara Ferguson Kamara (’63).

The nation witnessed this amazing show of defiance, peace and unity as it was presented live on television and radio. The extensive news coverage also allowed those who were not at the rally to feel connected to the event.

Many African Americans also saw something new on their televisions – something taken for granted today in the age of ubiquitous media coverage. The faces broadcasted in the blue glow of their television screens reflected their own. Never before had so many Black faces been seen on television.

Future JCSU Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Parran Foster (’72), experienced the march through those television broadcasts as a 13-year-old.

“I was mesmerized by Dr. King’s words, and I had never seen so many black folks assembled anywhere before. At that time, we may have seen a black person on TV as seldom as once a week,” said Foster.

Now their faces filled the screen.

William C. Steele (’65) was a JCSU student watching on an old black-and-white television in the Carter Hall lounge on campus.

“It was one of the most moving moments of my life,” he recalls.

His fellow students led the Civil Rights Movement in Charlotte. Students like Leonard and Veronica Bethel (’64). They served on the front line of the movement working to integrate buses, marching in protests, entering Charlotte businesses and demanding, in a polite and dignified manner, to be served and treated like any white customer. 

JCSU students organized protests and walked the streets of the city asking that businesses accept them. They became Freedom Riders who worked to integrate the bus systems of the South. These students were the leaders who helped organize groups that fought for change like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

So strong was their belief in equality, JCSU students were even imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor just for working to integrate businesses that refused them service.

Alumnus Obie Patterson (’65) was a junior who attended the march knowing it would conflict with his job and could potentially get him fired. Luckily, his manager understood after seeing the Dr. King button on his jacket, and he remained employed.

“I often think how losing my job could have been a major blow given that I was a married man with a daughter, struggling to get through college. I needed that job, but I also needed to stand my ground and attend that march. I am so glad I did,” he said.

The crowd marched mainly across the roughly one mile National Mall converging on the steps of the monument to the Great Emancipator himself, the Lincoln Memorial.

The actual program lasted only a few hours as the crowd sang and listened to entertainers, singers and influential leaders of the Civil Rights Movement speak about the inequity they had experienced and call on all Americans to help bring about change.

“Seeing this momentous event on television made me aware that I, as a young Black person, was missing much in life: equal opportunities to go to integrated theatres, carnivals, schools. But it gave me a view that better days might lie ahead if members of my age group and our elders continued to agitate for social change,” said JCSU alumnus James Daughtridge (’72).

The event climaxed when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and number 16 on the event program, took the podium and delivered one of the best-known speeches in American history.

Attendee Clarence Wade (’48) described what he saw.

“My friend [who attended the event with Wade] looked at me, and for a few moments, King said very little, but then collected himself. He belted out ‘I HAVE A DREAM....’ The crowd hushed. And then I knew what my friend had been feeling. We looked at each other and could not hold back the tears,” he concluded.

This outstanding piece of oratory is arguably the most memorable part of the event. King began with a prepared statement and improvised the end, using his great skill as a preacher and speaker, describing his dream of a new world that arose from the one of slavery and hatred where equality and freedom had taken their place. 

JCSU alumnus James Ewers (’70) calls Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech “the operation that America needed on its heart and soul.”

King’s speech resonated with the audience in a stirring and memorable way whether it was heard in person or by broadcast.

“The speech gave those of us who were marginalized, hope and inspiration. I still play Dr. King’s speech to this day because of its impact upon the social justice fabric of this country,” explained Ewers. 

Dr. Ernie Wade (’61) turned on the television just as the speech began. He had intended  to retrieve something from his car but instead sat, so captivated by what he heard, that he left his car door open the whole time.

Those who witnessed the event in person were also held in rapt attention.

“As I stood there, 10 to 15 rows from Martin [King] and the group, I was awed. I had goose bumps. He went into the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Martin was one of the most articulate persons on the planet,” Jones (’58) said describing the moment.

Finally, the day came to a close.

“It was a long day, but by the end after Dr. King spoke, the crowd was extremely emotional and everyone was hugging and singing together,” said Glee (’63).

Attendees boarded buses, cars, trains and planes and headed home. JCSU students continued to agitate for change in Charlotte and across the South. It is a struggle upheld to this day.

Now, 50 years later, we look back at this event that helped grow and propel the Civil Rights Movement. A number of groups are working in Washington to bring back those who attended the event like http://50thanniversarymarchonwashington.com/ and http://officialmlkdream50.com/ to remind the nation of what was said and done in the political heart of the nation on that hot August day.

The Washington Post has created a section of its website to cover the 50th anniversary of the event: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/events-marking-50th-anniversary-of-march-on-washington-to-emphasize-dreams-unfulfilled/2013/08/20/674922f0-08e0-11e3-9941-6711ed662e71_story.html

At Johnson C. Smith University, we have chosen to use the eyes, ears and mouths of our alumni to tell this story. You can read memories of our alumni who attended the march, or you can see the memories from alumni who didn’t attend but did participate in advancing the cause of freedom and equality in the Queen City. We have also put together a timeline of important civil rights moments in the history of North America. 

On this anniversary, please take a moment to reflect on how we may further the cause of equality. Every day we see our students struggle with economic inequalities. If you are interested, you can help us help them. Every bit helps.

We want the JCSU family to remember Dr. King’s dream, and we work to provide a bridge to that dream through education. We invite everyone to join us in working to right inequalities and persevere in the face of injustice.

As King said:

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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.

I have a dream today.

May his dream endure.