Let Freedom Ring
As the sun rose on Washington on August 28, 1963, the National Mall filled with people from all over the nation gathered for a singular purpose. The space swelled with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—young and old, black and white, in an unprecedented display of solidarity. At noon, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman John Lewis emerged from a meeting at the Capitol to witness “a sea of humanity coming from Union Station.” Then 23, the current congressman marveled that “we were supposed to be leading the march but the people were already marching.” By two in the afternoon, Marian Anderson had sung the national anthem, and March director A. Philip Randolph took the stage to address an upheaving nation.
The March was a day when words and actions fused to create a greater sense of collective progress toward equality. To observe both the 50th anniversary of this pivotal event and Black History Month, Capitol Hill Village and the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project are hosting “Were You There? Remembering the March on Washington” on Saturday, February 23 at Lutheran Church of the Reformation. The venture is not simply a remembrance of the past—it will bring the stories of participants together with young voices of today to continue the civil rights conversation.
50 Years of Memories
Whether or not they became marchers themselves, Capitol Hill residents were awash in the happenings of that August day half a century ago. A range of experience keeps 1963 alive in memory—mothers watching marchers’ children in the late summer heat, those children seeing streams of people make their way through the neighborhood to the Mall, families finding themselves standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
These memories and others will fill the air during the “Were You There” event. A keynote speaker will give a personal account of the March on Washington, evoking the mix of idealism and uncertainty of one of the largest demonstrations in United States history. A chorus from Friendship Public Charter School, Chamberlain campus, will perform songs of the civil rights era, giving way to a new generation of orators—two winners of the “I Have a Dream” speech contest, a middle school student and a high school student, will deliver their interpretations on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision for America. These new voices will provide present context for a moderated panel discussion on the March and its continuing legacy. This intergenerational texture is a way for families to share and discover history.
Speaking Memories, Living the Day
At the “Were You There” event, Rev. Edward A. Hailes, Jr. will help usher the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream into its second half-century as the moderator of the panel, which consists of those present for the March and active in the civil rights movement. Rev. Hailes is a civil rights attorney, ordained Baptist minister, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton as General Counsel for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He led the Counsel’s historic investigation into alleged voting irregularities in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. With his background in policy and legal action, Rev. Hailes brings Dr. King’s emphasis on economic equality and racial justice to the commemorative day.
The panel members are also steeped in the history of the civil rights movement, and have stirring stories of action for change. As a student at Howard University in 1963, Courtland Cox worked to desegregate public facilities, and was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee representative on the Steering Committee for the March on Washington. He was also a co-owner and manager of the Drum and Spear Bookstore, and served as the Director of the Minority Business Development Agency under Clinton, implementing strategies to better serve economic minorities.
Rev. Reginald M. Green participated in the Richmond, Virginia student sit-ins of the early 1960s, and fought segregation as a freedom rider. He is now retired after forty years of being a pastor, but in 1961, he spent 29 days in a Jackson, Mississippi jail for riding a bus with his fellow activists. After his release, Rev. Green met Dr. King in Atlanta. The rest of the panel will include Nellie Hailes, the mother of Rev. Hailes, and other Capitol Hill residents and civil rights pioneers ready to share stories of the March and keep them alive for the future.
“This is our hope, and this is the faith”
As a hot day in Washington blazed across the Mall, Dr. King’s soon to be hallowed words echoed over the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument: “…we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” He roared on, “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
Winners of the “Were You There?” speech contest will echo this sentiment while projecting it into the future, giving new voice to words that continue to define the meaning of equality. The commemorative event is part of sharing the story of a dream across generations in the service of collective memory. In Dr. King’s words, “nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”
“Were You There? Remembering the 1963 March on Washington” takes place at 1:30 pm (doors open at 1:00pm) on Saturday, February 23, 2013 at Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 212 East Capitol Street, NE, Washington, DC. Families welcome, best for ages 12 and older. Go to www.CapitolHillHistory.org/Memories to submit stories of the March on Washington and contact Pat Brockett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-431-4099 for more information about the event.