Be There to Remember
“I have a dream today!” On August 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke the words that would become the elegant battle cry of the civil rights movement and the ethos of an era. “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” he began, and hundreds of thousands listened, arrayed around him, standing together on the Mall, or straining to hear from more remote locations.
Capitol Hill was a neighborhood very in tune with the happenings of that day, and two local organizations, Capitol Hill Village and the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, are collaborating on a cross-generational event to solidify remembrance. “Were You There? Remembering the 1963 March on Washington” will share Hill residents’ range of experiences, as well as engage the present with a past whose voice still rings with relevance.
On February 23, 2013, people who participated in or have other memories of the March will form the event’s panel, a vehicle for starting a wider conversation on 1963 and a half-century of protest and progress. A keynote speaker will provide a singular view of the day and the “dream” onto which other memories can be projected. In addition, the next generation of America’s orators will have a chance to voice their thoughts on the meaning of civil rights by entering the “I Have a Dream” student speech contest co-sponsored by the organizing groups.
“Were You There?” got its start on a snowy day last winter at the Hill Center. Hill residents gathered to talk about their lives at a moment of great cultural change and political mobilization. It was a meaningful exchange of memory—whether they stayed home to watch after their children, or hiked down to the Mall to catch a glimpse of Dr. King, the speakers all told stories of being caught up in a wave of history.
The collective remembrance was also a chance for those who only knew the March from classes and textbooks to get a firsthand look at the civil rights movement in the moment—from college students to Capitol Hill Village seniors, the forum stirred an effort to continue the intergenerational discussion.
One story from that winter day that captures the spirit of the March, in its grassroots glory, is that of Margaret Hollister and her son Paul. Just 13 in August 1963, Paul remembered that “in our family the man stayed home and the woman took me along with her.” Margaret, a white social worker, had been warned not to go to the March, that it might be dangerous. But she and her son set out early from Capitol Hill for the Lincoln Memorial with a sense of purpose. “You were waiting for something to happen, just plain happen,” she said.
Their timing paid off. They were able to walk near Dr. King himself on the Memorial’s steps, and the uncertainty of an unprecedented situation dissipated. “It was as if the tensions were gone and you were completely absorbed in the occasion with this man standing there, with his guards behind him, and Lincoln behind it all,” Margaret recounted. Walking into Dr. King’s presence was an indelible experience—“Even as a thirteen-year-old, that struck me as very new, so it was very exciting,” Paul told the audience. For her part, his mother felt that “something big was happening, and it was important to be there whatever happened.”
As for the speech that steered the course of a nation, Margaret said that “it didn’t matter [as much] what he said, it was the fact that he was talking to a lot of people who were there for him. And for each other.” Now 94, standing near Dr. King in 1963 is still one of the “major experiences” of her life, one her son was lucky enough to share with her.
Into the Future
The Hollisters’ remarkable recollection is just one of many stories that are well worth recording and sharing. “Were You There?” aims to combine these living portraits of the past with today’s voices. A speech contest will be held through participating Capitol Hill middle and high schools—students will write their own "I Have a Dream.” Winners will give their speeches at the February 23rd event and receive scholarship prizes. Dr. King continues to speak to new generations, who can continue his work in their own words.
The Overbeck Project is now collecting stories about the March through its website, at www.CapitolHillHistory.org/Memories.A form is available there for submitting details; it allows one person to enter a story on behalf of another, and students are encouraged to interview older relatives in order to assist them in preparing their memories for submission.
Through the flow of memories and sharing stories across generations, the 1963 March on Washington continues to give shape to freedom of expression and public discourse in America. The “Were You There?” event seeks to preserve the personal and powerful memories of 1963 while adding the voice of the present to the conversation on civil rights given such a prominent national platform a half-century ago.
“Were You There? Remembering the 1963 March on Washington” takes place on Saturday, February 23, 2013 at Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 212 East Capitol Street, NE, Washington, DC. Keynote speaker, moderator, and panel will be announced in early 2013. Go to www.CapitolHillHistory.org/Memories to submit stories of the March on Washington and contact Pat Brockett at firstname.lastname@example.org more information about the event.