Kathryn Riss, Piscataway, NJ

Norman Grieser was my father. In 1963 I was Kathryn Grieser, a 16-year old high school student, and an active member of CORE in Washington, DC. I thought it outrageous that blacks and whites didn’t have the same rights and that the District had NO home rule, no elected officials at all, and was “represented” in Congress by white bigots from the South. I got started in politics as a member of High School Students for Better Education, which lobbied Congress not to cut our school budget! When the Civil rights movement heated up, I was eager to get involved. As a minor, I wasn’t allowed to sit-in or Freedom ride, but I passed out literature, picketed, and marched and sang at demonstrations with the adults.

Since my parents were divorced, I was required to spend summers with my father and his second wife on Long Island, NY. When Dad learned that I was planning to take the CORE bus to Washington from Port Authority for the Big March on August 28th, he said, “No daughter of mine is going to be involved in any race riot!” I told him it wasn’t going to be a race riot, just a peaceful, non-violent demonstration. When he found that I was determined to go, he decided to drive me to D.C. himself rather than let me take the bus. So, the two of us drove down in Dad’s little red convertible. It was quite a sight to see the river of buses going down the NJ turnpike, all with Civil Rights banners on their sides.

Dad found a parking place on the tidal basin near the Lincoln Memorial, and we joined the march at the very end. I took a sign from the CORE people who were handing them out, but Dad wasn’t satisfied. He said, “I’ll make my own sign.” He turned a sign over, and on the blank side, drew two headstones, one white and the other black with “R.I.P.” on them, put an equal sign between them, and wrote underneath, “Why wait?” Dad was a career naval officer; he had been in WWII and Korea in the Seabees, so had seen a lot of death, although he never talked about it. I guess he thought death the great equalizer. (Dad died in 1995 and was buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery.)

In 1964, I joined the sit-in at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ to request that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party representatives be seated instead of the regular Mississippi delegation, who were all Dixicrats. Currently I am an elected Democratic Committee Woman here in Piscataway, NJ. supporting Barbara Buono for Governor.

How did I feel in 1963? It was a mixture of hope, worry and determination. We had lost Medgar Evers that June, and violence was escalating against Civil Rights workers in the South. There were good reasons to be afraid that we might be attacked by the police or bigots. There had been talk of shutting D.C. down with sit-ins to get the Kennedy administration to protect us. Jack Kennedy wanted people to be patient and content with gradual integration, which he hoped would avoid more violence. But we knew that the KKK and the White Citizens Councils wouldn’t give up their power unless forced to, and we were not willing to be patient in the face of massive injustices. So, we decided to all go to Washington to show our solidarity, unity and determination. And it worked! We got the Civil Rights Act passed the next year, and the Voting Rights Act passed the year after that. We got Federal Marshalls to protect demonstrators in the South desegregating Jim Crow establishments. We spoke truth to power and got power to do the right thing. Being a part of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement is the one part of my life that I can look back on with satisfaction and gratitude, because despite all the work still to be done and all the suffering that remains, we accomplished a good deal to make America more of what it should be – a land of freedom and justice for all.

Submitted: August 26, 2013

Suzy Karpel-Gebhardt

As young teenagers, we traveled by chartered bus from summer camp in New York to participate in the march. We had no idea of the magnitude of the crowd nor the future momentous effects on our nation’s history. It was thrilling but also very, very hot. When Dr. King started to speak, the humidity seemed to disappear. He shook the world and changed our lives forever. I have never experienced a speaker so mesmerizing, so mellifluous, so powerful (and never will).

I later served on the Montgomery County Maryland Martin Luther King Jr. Commemmorative Commission in the late 1970s and 1980s; our purpose was to designate a national holiday to commemmorate and honor Dr. King. Along with other groups, we succeeded.

Submitted: August 22, 2013

Barbara Long

Contributed by her daughter, Susan Long, South Pasadena, CA

My mother’s best friend relayed this story to me recently. The coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, 1963 triggered this memory. My family moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Alexandria, Virginia in July 1963. The hostility my mother witnessed at the integration of Central High School and the violence the Freedom Riders encountered moved her and shaped her views on race in America. It reinforced her opinion that it was a duty of all Americans to fight racism. I am guessing she was shy and a little scared about attending the March on Washington. As a stay at home mother with four young children, she probably felt she didn’t have much to offer the Civil Rights movement at that time. She probably didn’t have the money to pay for a sitter for the whole day.

She drove into Washington and approached folks, offering to wash and iron their clothes. She said she would return them the next day. Most people were reluctant. How would they find each other again? Her friend told me she finally got a few takers. She returned the next day with clean, pressed clothes. I am proud of my mother for her small determined, and humble part in the March on Washington. Her name was Barbara Long. Later, she earned her teaching credential and taught Black American Literature at Fort Hunt High School in Alexandria. She worked hard to connect with students wherever she could. She passed away in 1976.

Submitted: August 21, 2013

Tita Theodora Beal, New York, NY

I went to the March on Washington on a bus from Connecticut with my mother and sister. My father wanted to be with us but had to watch on tv from Connecticut because he was recovering from a heart attack. An amazing family outting.

As our bus speeded towards the capital, we saw hundreds of other buses flowing in from New England, then New York, Pennsylvania. Every highway stop was filled with more buses. As we came into D.C., very very poor people were lined along the sidewalks to watch the incoming buses – we called out for them to join us. And when the bus stopped, I realized the gathering would be massive – I later went to the largest demonstration in DC against the Viet Nam war – the govt counted that at 400,000 – but the size of March on Washington was two or three times larger, no matter what the counters said at the time. Before the time for the march towards the Lincoln Monument came, we found ourselves already moving forward, no signal, just flowing. I heard later that the leaders of the march had to run to catch up to the front of the line. We became an oceanic wave of Americans of all backgrounds from all over the country joining together and flowing towards the Lincoln Memorial for first class citizenship and equal opportunities for all citizens. At one point someone on stage asked everyone around the reflecting pool to the podiums to be quiet and asked the people hidden from view by park trees to call out. The visible part of us was already huge – but the sound from the park under the trees, so far back from the podium, was loud, strong and equally huge.

I slowly moved closer to the podium past many people with United Auto Workers banners. At one point I found myself with a large group of young teens from some urban school somewhere in the country where life is tough. They started to react to me as if I were the enemy. Then they started realizing I, a white girl, was with them and we cheered each other on. I passed old white couples who seemed to have come straight from church and many other whites of all ages and backgrounds. Clearly impoverished black workers who had somehow found a way to the march. Asians. Native Americans. Latinos. People had been afraid of violence – every face showed hope and love for America’s dream of equal opportunity for every individual regardless of all the differences in the magnificent diversity of our country.

After the march, it took two more years and many deaths and imprisonments just to get a law saying all citizens had the right to vote – the Voting Rights Act that the 
Supreme Court just gutted without any apparent awareness of the new more subtle
 ways to restrict the vote in districts where people might vote Democratic … and 
with ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] creating laws to restrict fairness in so many areas from Stand Your
 Ground, through redistricting to give unfair levels of representation, to 
Wisconsin’s attempts to disempower unions – laws for states written by 
industries with a stake in de-regulation and privatization for states and
funding election campaigns of state politicians who promise to pass those laws 
in their State House/Senate. Sorry for the Sunday rant but this “anniversary” can remind us not just that there is a lot more to do but that there is a lot
 being undone …. Shall we meet again in the spring of 2014 to honor the memory of King’s assassination while organizing his Poor People’s Campaign?

The spring before the march on Washington, I had taken my college spring vacation in Fayette County, Tennessee, to help lay bricks for the foundation of a community center. The CBS TV report on the arrests of people praying on the courthouse steps of Albany, 
Georgia, had made me aware of what was happening. Then a white Quaker, Virgie
 Hortenstine, from Ohio arrived at my college with the tall dark lay-preacher, 
 Rev. June Dowdy (a man from Fayette and Haywood Counties) who told us that when sharecroppers registered to vote, they were evicted, doubled up in the homes of former slaves who had kept the land given to them during Reconstruction after the Civil War. And when those homes filled up and there were still hundreds being evicted, tents were put up to house them.

“Tent City” drew the world press (google “Tent City Fayette County TN”, or or go to: memphis.edu/benhooks/, a research center dedicated to advancing the understanding and pursuing the goals of the American civil rights movement) … but then the world press moved on to more “exciting” events like fire hoses being sprayed at demonstrators, police dogs attacking them, assassinations of Viola Liuzzo and the black young man she gave a ride to after a voting rights organizing meeting (and got shot, with him, for her kindness), Medgar Evers, two New Yorkers Schwerner and Goodman and their black Mississippi co-worker Chaney and so many of the nameless shot and lynched. The people of Fayette and Haywood Counties included a high percent of African Americans because during the Civil War, many plantation owners moved their slaves to this rural area. Some, including John McFerren and Hartman Jamison, fought for democracy in WWII – now they wanted the right to vote at home in America.

Rev. June Dowdy told us students to “Put your body where your mouth is” and I signed up to go during spring vacation plus a few days. As we gathered each morning in Somerville, TN, we could see sunlight sparkling on the gun pointed at us from a window of a shack. We were told it was manned by the Klan, doing the bidding of the 
wealthier members of the White Citizens Council who wanted to keep their hands
 clean and use the poor whites as their attack dogs. 
 
I met incredibly courageous people – sharecroppers who were dirt poor, rented shacks to farm the land and risked everything to try to become “first class citizens” despite Southern Jim Crow laws making them very second-class. They kept
 registering even when they knew the White Citizens Council would evict them 
from their homes because they dared register to vote and they would have no way 
to support or shelter themselves and their families. I also met the leaders who
 galvanized the courage: John and Viola McFerren, Square Morman and others.

Submitted: August 4, 2013

Sig Cohen, Washington, DC

When I joined the Foreign Service of the US Information Agency in 1963 (Edward R. Morrow, cigarette in hand, actually swore me in), I had to go through six months of rather boring training before going overseas. It was during this period that the March on Washington took place. On the day before the March, our training officers told us not to come to class the next day. We were to be in the March on Washington. While most of us had wanted to participate, we thought we’d be stuck in class that day. Nothing of the sort. We were to get ourselves down to the Mall and march.

It was truly an unforgettable experience, especially hearing the breathtaking “I have a dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ll never forget it.

But were those training officers right! One of the first question I got hit with once I arrived at my first post (Dacca — now Dhaka — East Pakistan — now Bangladesh) was: Were you in the March on Washington?

It was truly a smart call by the training officers and a memorable experience!

Submitted: April 27, 2013

Stephen Merrill, Washington, DC

When I was 20 and a college sophomore at Columbia University, I spent the summer of 1963 in Washington as an intern in the office of Utah ’s Democratic Senator, Frank Moss. I therefore had an opportunity to attend the March on Washington. As I had been sending occasional articles about my DC experiences to the Logan (Utah) Herald Journal, the march was an obvious subject. My article was probably published in early September 1963.

[Note: the scanned article is included with permission of the Logan Herald Journal.]

Submitted: March 1, 2013

James Meyer, Chevy Chase, MD

During the summer of 1963, I was working as a government employee at the Naval Surface Weapons facility in White Oak, Maryland. It was my third summer working there, earning money for my college education. I was drawn to civil service because of President Kennedy and drawn to an interest in the planned March on Washington in part because of him. Civil rights in general had been important to me and to my brother, A. Paul Meyer, who, at that time, was pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Virginia. However, there was never any focus or imperative to the movement for me until I decided to join my brother and participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was certainly a humbling, exhilarating, and profoundly meaningful day for me and my brother. From the start of the March from the Washington Monument, through to the end at the Lincoln Memorial there was a sense of purpose, with thousands of like-minded people marching peacefully but with a determination to make a difference in advancing freedom for African American brothers and sisters. The program at the Lincoln Memorial is history with impressive “Remarks” by many and meaningful musical contributions by Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson and the Eva Jessye Choir. But of course the remarks by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the day a special significance for me and the thousands of participants. It was a hot day and drinking water was scarce but I recall little complaining. The day had been a profound one, catalyzing thousands, even politicians, to advance the actions for jobs and freedom.

So the day for me was something of a turning point. In some small way, I hope that I have advanced those principles that Dr. King articulated on that day. But there are also disappointments too in reflecting on that day 50 years ago. Too many of my Christian friends said “No” to participating in the March and “No” to the movement. And here we are today, 50 years later, still a nation struggling with injustices, for example, as noted recently in the Washington Post by Courtland Milloy (One example from his column: “ .. one in every 15 black men is incarcerated….”) So much more needs to be done. My brother and I won’t be around to assess the 75th anniversary, but it is our hope and prayer that it will be a victory celebration.

Submitted: February 20, 2013

Karen Mulhauser, Washington, DC

I was a student at Antioch College in August 1963. I and a few friends watched three buses pull away on the way to Washington, DC to what promised to be an historic demonstration for civil rights. No sooner had they left when we looked at each other and said, “Really? Chem lab and studying is more important! Really?” and we climbed into a car and headed east for what turned out to be an historic demonstration. Shortly after arriving on the Mall, I was approached by a young man with multiple cameras around his neck. When he asked why I was at the demonstration, I said something silly about wondering the same thing because I had exams the next week. He said, “No seriously, I am with the Washington Post.” So, I found something responsible to say and the next day my photo and quote were in the Post. This day helped shape who I am today far more than the exams when I returned to campus.

Submitted: February 22, 2013

Simeon Booker, Washington, DC

As Washington bureau chief for Jet and Ebony magazines, I directed coverage of the march by a team of reporters and photographers from across the country. The secret hysteria of the federal and local governments about a huge influx of civil rights demonstrators was evidenced on the eve of the march by warnings to area residents to stay home if they were not marching, and if they were, not to bring children. Government agencies closed and a Washington Senators ballgame was postponed. As demonstrators rolled into the District on buses, in cars, on trains, and some even on bicycles or roller skates, they were stunned to see armed troops on the street corners. What they did not know was that nearby military installations had been put on alert, ready to move in more troops if necessary. What the soldiers, the press and area residents who dared come out saw were tens of thousands of nicely dressed, — mostly in business attire — dignified and peaceful Americans of all races, carrying signs or wearing buttons communicating the righteousness of their cause. What folks today might not realize is that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. neither planned nor organized the march, although when it was over, it was clear that he would own it for all time. I wrote more about what I saw that day in my book, Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement (Univ. Press of Miss., 2013), p. 224-225.

Submitted: February 18, 2013

Judith Claire, Washington, DC

I returned to Michigan from serving in the Peace Corps in 1963 and in August I prepared to go to a new job with former Peace Corps volunteers at Cardozo High School in Washington, DC. I arrived in Washington by train on August 27th so that I could join the March on Washington the next day.

During my time in the Peace Corps, I lived on a small island in the Philippines-Catanduanes. There was no water, electricity, etc. What saved me was my battery radio and the Voice of America. I also got old copies of Life and Look Magazines. I could not believe what was happening in my country when I listened to the radio at night and heard about the police beatings and killings of the Negro people back home.

On the morning of August 28th I went to All Souls Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard NW and joined a group of women who were marching down to the Lincoln Memorial. The city was quiet. We moved easily down the streets and joined others with signs and songs. As I recall, it seemed to be something like a Sunday picnic with well dressed people gathering to celebrate and to ask for jobs and equal rights — also to end police brutality. I ended up somewhat near the right side of the Lincoln and could see some type of opening under that corner. That day was the beginning of my long and sorrowful time in Washington. In November, President Kennedy was assassinated and then came Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam war. I felt a terrible loss during the years after that hopeful day of August 28th 1963. I still feel that time and over the years have expressed my thoughts in paintings of the struggles of the time.

Submitted: February 16, 2013