For marchers, King's 'Dream' speech was 'electrifying,' 'momentous'

Tim Skillern
Yahoo News
Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech.   (Central Press/Getty Images)
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10 things you may not know about the 1963 March on Washington

Editor’s note: The following seven vignettes are from first-person accounts of men and women who attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and witnessed Martin Luther King’s speech. Excerpts are from interviews with Yahoo News unless otherwise noted.

‘It was like a glacier moving down the avenue’

The march was Nan Grogan Orrock’s introduction to the civil rights movement. In 1963, just shy of her 20th birthday, she lived with her aunt in Washington where she worked as a clerk for the federal government. Orrock worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1964 and the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SNCC) in 1965-66. She served in the Georgia Statehouse, starting in 1987 and, in 2007, she was elected to the Georgia state Senate. Here are portions from her story, which she told to Yahoo News this week:

I was at the end of the reflecting pool, closest to the Lincoln Memorial. The massive, massive size of the march was incredible. It was a living thing. It was like a glacier moving down the avenue.

I was nervous because there were TV cameras and [there was] a chance I would end up on TV. That made me uncomfortable because I had not told my family what I was doing. I had certainly not told my aunt. I knew better than to tell her that I was going to join that march. I told her I had a date that afternoon. The date I had was a date with history.

Overwhelmingly, I realized, as a white Southerner, I had been mis-educated. As smart as I thought I was, I really had failed to understand the enormity of racial discrimination in the country and the intensity of a movement to topple the color bar. I had been raised in all-white schools where we were taught that America was the land of the free and home of the brave, and that we were a democracy and a wonderful place. What was completely left out in that upbringing was any understanding of the way that African-American people had been treated and the enormity of it and the sordid, sordid history.

And, out of that, I came away knowing I was going to be part of this fight. You could describe it as being born again. My sense of fairness and justice were really activated that day.

Years later, my mother wrote me a letter — years later because they were very disapproving when I finally broke down and told them what I had done — saying, “I just want you to know, as your mother, that I am proud that you understood at such a young age what Dr. King was trying to do and that you decided to take a stand. I’m very, very proud of you.” It was quite a moving thing, needless to say, because they had really struggled to understand what on Earth I was doing with my life.

Related: UK influential figures reflect on march, King 

For her to have that kind of turn around, as Southern whites, to understand what I was doing, was quite significant.

‘It was one of the most electrifying moments I’ve ever had in my life’

Monte Wasch, then 21, began his civil rights work in the late 1958 and '59, helping organize student and youth marches. In 1960-61, he worked on behalf of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) New York arm in Atlanta and Jackson, Miss., before assisting the transportation efforts for the March on Washington. His team worked with airline, bus and rail companies to transport marchers, and he coordinated with D.C. police on parking. Wasch was on the podium when King began to speak.

I was working most of the morning, and I was on the platform about noon when the speechifying started. By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, which is when King came on, I was bushed. I’d been up for probably 24 hours straight. My work was done, so I wandered off to get a feeling of what the crowd was like. And I walked down to the reflecting pool, so I was maybe a half mile away from the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King began his speech. His speech at the beginning […] was pretty conventional. It was a speech. And then, about 10 minutes into it, the preacher in him took over. And he began preaching, “I have a dream.”

You have to understand it was 98 degrees that day, and people were fanning themselves and putting their bare feet into the reflecting pool to cool off. By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, most of them were sun-drunk.

People were kind of dozing at the beginning of his speech, and when he began to orate, it was a like a lightning bolt. It was like a burst of electricity had moved through the crowd. People perked up. They began to take notice. They began to listen intently. They began to sway with the rhythm of the speech. They began to murmur, “Yes, yes.” It was one of the most electrifying moments I’ve ever had in my life. That’s the only way I can describe it.

King was a much more rounded person than the King of “I have a dream.” I also remember he was brave enough to come out in opposition to the war in Vietnam at a time when other black leaders were saying that that was diversionary. And I also remember that his focus was as much on the moral imperatives as it was on the economic imperatives — full employment and job training and ending second-class status of black people in the workforce.

Related: 'A Moses parting the Red Sea moment'

Historically, I think it ranks among the three or four speeches of the 20th century. Churchill’s famous “we’ll fight them on the beaches,” Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and King.

‘Nothing but buses, solid buses’

Bruce Hartford began his civil rights work in 1963 in Los Angeles with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He helped fight for housing integration, school desegregation and fair employment. After the march, Hartford joined voting-rights campaigns in Selma, Ala., and rural Alabama in 1965, and the field staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for two years. Here are edited excerpts of his memories, as told to the Civil Rights Movement Veterans, and published on Yahoo News with permission:

We [were] coming on the bus, and it was pitch dark, maybe 4 in the morning. We were coming down from the north and we cross over this big bridge. I think it might have been the bridge over the Delaware River. And on the far side there were maybe 20 or 30 or more people with flares and torches and signs saying, "We're with you," [and] "God speed," cheering the buses on.

We on the busses didn't know whether the march was going to be a success or not. There had been all this stuff in the newspaper — no one will come, or it'll be a disaster, the civil rights movement is a hoax, it's just a few malcontents, outside agitators, [and] communist propaganda.

And then other papers were in total panic mode — Call out the National Guard! Alert the 101st Airborne! Close the liquor stores! Hide the white women! Evacuate the children to the countryside! It was like they thought the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan were descending on the nation's capitol to rape, ravage, and pillage. And we'd just had Birmingham, where fire hoses and police dogs were used to attack children in Kelly Ingram Park, [and] nonviolent demonstrators had been clubbed, beaten, and arrested.

So the first thing we see are people who probably could not come to the march — it was on a weekday, a workday — but had gotten up in the dead of night to give support. And then as we're driving towards D.C., the sun comes up over the eastern shore, and it's just buses, the whole damn freeway. Just busses bumper to bumper, and we're still miles out. Nothing but buses, solid buses. And that's when we knew.

‘Any kind of revolution is about change’

Seventeen when she accompanied her family to the march, Fatima Cortez-Todd made bus banners for her group’s trip from New York to Washington. After graduating from high school, and over her parents’ objections, she worked for CORE in Baton Rouge, La., where she assisted in voter registration and taught literacy classes.

My mom was very active with CORE. We used to have these Sunday fundraisers at different people’s homes, and, at 17, I helped serve sandwiches and be there for the adults. We did what kids do when their parents are doing something exciting and important: We try to figure out how to be part of it.

What sticks out is that [King] talked about segregation in the South. Then he talked about segregation in the North, and people haven’t really talked about that. In New York City, where I was born and raised, there were enormous amounts of discrimination in housing and jobs. He addressed that — the segregation in the skyscrapers. He talked about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and inalienable rights, and that the United States made all these promises [related to them].

He even used the word “revolution.” People are afraid of the word, but any kind of revolution is about change and holding us, as the people, responsible for those changes and holding the government accountable for its behavior.

[The speech] inspired me to figure out what my place was in the revolution. So when I came back and started college, I volunteered in a literacy program in Harlem. The idea that were there folks in New York City and kids in high school that didn’t know how to read — that concept was so foreign to me. He inspired me to do the work. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

[Today, people] don’t really look at the whole speech. They get caught up in the romanticizing of “I have a dream.” There are very clear specific things said in that speech, which are as apropos today as they were in 1963: the responsibility of folks to vote and the responsibility of holding your government accountable.

‘It was the apogee of people’s aspirations’

Louis D. Armmand, then 19, joined CORE in June 1963. He and five high school friends organized a 5,000-person rally in Staten Island, N.Y., the weekend before the march and sent five buses — with about 200 total riders — to D.C.

The thing about that day was it was eerie, quiet. We must’ve hit D.C. about 9 o’clock. We were able to get reasonably close [to the podium]. It was the first time I’d been to the mall, and it was magnificent. We were within a 100 feet or so of the speakers. It was pretty awe-inspiring to see that assembly of people. After 9 o’clock people started coming in thick and fast. Once people started crowding in, you had to stay in your section because it was shoulder to shoulder.

Looking back on King’s speech, it wasn’t seen as momentous as it was now because, frankly, we keyed on the speech that John Lewis made [...] because he was a student, he was in the field, he was in the South, and we felt SNCC was on the cutting edge even more deeply than Dr. King.

I think everybody was moved at the particular time. It was a culmination. It was the apogee of people’s aspirations.

But the biggest [question] was, “Could this be done?” Most people thought this was an impossible task. People were predicting violence. Johnson had 8,000 troops surrounding the whole site. We saw the armed sailors standing at the parade when we came into the mall. It was surprising to the establishment, to the elite press, who expected that there were going to be riots. There was not one disruption caused by the participants themselves. They came peacefully, they participated peacefully and they left peacefully.

Dr. King and his vision have been sort of frozen in time, and I think that’s a disservice to his development because, clearly, three years later with that “Beyond Vietnam” speech, his consciousness of the nature of American society had progressed quite broadly and quite accurately.

But after leaving, I have to admit, after returning home, after that march, I felt a certain pause. We weren’t given a message as to, “Where do we go from here? How do we proceed?”

‘You couldn’t help but be awestruck by the crowd’

Joanne Gavin, then 31, was a civil rights veteran with CORE in 1963. In August, she rode a chartered bus from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., with the intent to join SNCC in the South. After the march, however, she stayed to work in the organization’s D.C. offices.

I had gone that morning down to the Justice Department because people from southwest Georgia, who were heroes of mine, were picketing the FBI, so I picketed with them and then walked to the march with them. So we were late. We were way back by the Washington Monument at the edge of the reflecting pool. You couldn’t help but be awestruck by the crowd.

King has been totally sanitized and made into an angelic figure with a halo who had a dream, and that’s not what King was about. What I took away wasn’t the dream speech, but that a promissory note was going unpaid by the government and the country.

I would advise [everyone] read the whole thing. Most people don’t know the whole speech. Most people only hear those [I have a dream] lines, which I understood from some associates were an afterthought that he hadn’t actually written that into the speech. Read the whole thing and the rest of his writing and see what he was really about — which was organizing people and struggling against the economic inequality of the country and the oppression of people.

There was a lot of optimism, and the feeling that we were going to go forward rapidly from here, but there was a lot of work to be done. And I remember one person I met in D.C. that said that her young child woke up the next morning and said, “Mommy, are we free now?” Certainly the adults didn’t think they were free right that minute, but they were energized to work harder.

‘Free at last, free at last’

Twenty-six when he marched on Washington, Lonnie King Jr. was the founding chairman of the Committee on the Appeal for Human Rights in Atlanta. He challenged segregation and discrimination at lunch counters and in churches, movie theaters, courthouses, parks and recreation centers. According to the Civil Rights Movement Veterans organization, he used sit-ins, kneel-ins and “jail no bail” tactics and filed a lawsuit that integrated Atlanta’s recreational facilities. Here are excerpts from recollections he wrote for Yahoo News this week.

The march came as the dénouement of the struggle for equal rights in this country. The NAACP had been on the battlefield since 1909, and had achieved outstanding results, but young people who were born during the Depression and had come of age by 1960, were of a different breed. They had observed the slow pace of racial progress in the country, especially in the South. Thousands of them were at the march. Dr. King, sensing the importance of the occasion, delivered one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, or any century.

He had been prescient when he titled one of his early books “Why We Can’t Wait.” He told the audience, and the world, that the African-American had been waiting for hundreds of years to enjoy the blessings of liberty promised in the Declaration of Independence for all of its citizens. He moved the audience through the annals of America’s sordid record on race and appealed to the country to finally become the home of the free and the bastion of justice for all its citizens. He dreamed of a day when all peoples would be judged by their abilities and not by the color of their skin.

I observed his speech at a distance less than 50 feet away from the podium, and I was so proud that someone I had known since 1945 had captured in a message that lasted approximately 30 minutes all of the hopes and dreams of a race of people who had been the nation’s “step-children” since 1607.

His greatest line to me was his closing statement: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.” The speech was a masterpiece and so much of it resonates today.