The speech still echoes 50 years after Ruth Martin stood in awestruck silence on the National Mall and listened as Dr. Martin Luther King delivered the soaring words of his now-famous “I have a dream” speech.
But something more vibrates out of that hot August day in 1963, something powerful and authentic, that has remained with the Cherokee County native all these decades later.
It was the notion that out of a groundswell of people from all walks of life could come the prospect of peaceful co-existence.
“That was the most memorable event that I’ve ever attended, and that was even before we heard the speech,” Martin recalled Tuesday. “Just parking and walking down to the mall we were just looking at the people. It was so peaceful. The weather was so beautiful. There were black people, white people, people of all stripes, and we commented on that. We said, this is wonderful. Everyone seemed at peace and so happy.”
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This week, Americans will pause to remember Aug. 28, 1963. President Obama will mark the anniversary with a speech on Wednesday, remembering that mid-week day in 1963 when 250,000 people poured in by bus, train and car to hear King remind the country “of the fierce urgency of now” in granting full citizenship to black Americans.
South Carolinians were well represented – I. Dequincey Newman, state NAACP director; James Felder, an activist and future legislator; Ernest Finney Jr., future chief justice of the state Supreme Court; Charles Joyner, an academic who would go on to chronicle rural and black life in the Palmetto state; James Sulton, an Orangeburg NAACP activist and his young son, Jim; and many others.
The state’s all-white congressional delegation viewed the gathering with foreboding, suggesting such a march would only spawn chaos. But their predictions proved wrong.
A battle for ‘all folks’
The lyrical cadences of the “I Have a Dream” section of the speech linger in memory for those who traveled to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
But retired AME Bishop Fred C. James, standing three rows back from the civil rights leader, felt even more deeply King’s absolute insistence that rights rooted in the Constitution had not been redeemed for the nation’s black people.
“Who would accept that subservient role?” James asked Thursday as he recalled the long ago march. “It served notice on all of America that we respect ourselves too much not to receive the rights of the American Constitution.”
James, then the pastor of Sumter’s Mt. Pisgah AME Church, was a veteran of the “Sumter movement,” having sued to desegregate the city’s library and participated in dozens of nonviolent sit-ins and protests.
He led the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Commission on Social Action, a national role that combined his fierce love of the Bible with his deep commitment to constitutional principles.
James hoped the march would deliver a wake-up call to white America, that all citizens would recognize the economic and social justice plight of black Americans and unite with them in extending economic and social opportunity.
“Our battle was not just for black folks. It was for all folks. It was for the average man,” James, 91, said last week.
He smiled at the memory. “I was a little dreamy because it didn’t happen that way. We thought there would be more action on the part of others who wanted to make America better.”
Still, Gloria Dreher Eaddy, 69, was amazed at those who did come – whites, blacks, Jews, Protestants, young students, the elderly, famous musicians and actors.
She was a student at Palmer Business College in Columbia when she boarded a bus before dawn with Benedict College students and Newman, who recruited hundreds of students for NAACP work.
They parked at a church in downtown Washington – the bus broke down as they arrived – and ate a box lunch provided by the congregation.
Once situated on the grass along the mall that connects the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, her group looked up to see actors Sidney Poitier, Kirk Douglas and Harry Belafonte stride through the crowd.
That was a harbinger of the A-list celebrities and civil rights leaders who would speak and entertain that day.
Eaddy’s parents granted her permission to attend the 1963 march, but did not allow her teenage brothers to go. Eaddy said they were concerned the boys could not remain nonviolent if provoked by white agitators.
They needn’t have worried. New York Times columnist Russell Baker, writing in the Aug. 29 edition, noted, “The sweetness and patience of the crowd may have set some sort of national high-water mark in mass decency.”
Like ‘opening your eyes and ears’
For Eaddy, who grew up on Governor’s Hill and attended segregated Booker T. Washington High School, that day provided a window to a new day.
She had no white friends. As a veteran of Columbia’s downtown lunch counter sit-ins and marches, she had met mostly hostility from whites “irritated by missing their lunch.”
“After the march and seeing the participation there, I felt like we had really made a difference and that changes would be made,” she said.
Eaddy returned to Columbia but left for New York shortly afterward to take a job as a babysitter on Long Island, as did many of her friends. She stayed one year but returned to Columbia, married, had a son and worked at Allied Signal until her retirement.
She treasured memorabilia from that day, including a tape of her remembrances. But she said the items were lost after her son took them to school for a middle school project.
Martin, too, contrasted her life before and after the march.
She had been raised on a farm in Blacksburg, near Gaffney, attended segregated two-room schools and faced the prospect of the farm or the mill when she exited high school. But she found she liked to read and enrolled at Benedict College, where she majored in biology.
Returning to the Upstate, Martin taught in Gaffney – still in segregated schools – but found not much had changed. At the intersection to her town, the Ku Klux Klan regularly posted its meeting signs.
A summer spent in New York led to her enrollment in St. Mary’s College to study medical technology and employment at Beth Israel Hospital. In the summer of 1963, as word began to circulate about the march, Martin and her co-workers decided to drive to Washington.
She returned to the South following her marriage, traveled with her military husband to Texas, where she found segregation even more debilitating than in South Carolina.
By the time Martin settled in Columbia in 1968 and embarked on a career in public health, she felt confident there was no turning back. The march’s aftermath “was just like opening your eyes and ears, and becoming attuned to things,” said Martin, now president and CEO of the Center for Community and Family Transitions at Zion Canaan Baptist Church.
“That day put into high gear some of the progress we have today,” said Felder, of the Voter Education Project, including the 1964 Civil Right Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “That march was really sort of the jumping-off point even though some ugly things happened after,” including the Birmingham bombing that killed four Sunday School girls and the assassinations of President Kennedy and King.
‘Not an end but a beginning’
It is instructive to remember what else King said that day – his tough assessment that “America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of its colored citizens,” King said, standing on a podium that included the nation’s most powerful black leaders. “This sweltering summer of the colored people’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning.
“Those who hope that the colored Americans needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual,” he continued. “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the colored citizen is granted his citizenship rights.”
Today, with the repeal of a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there are some who wonder if the victories of the 1960s are being undermined.
“That is what worries me that we are reversing the progress,” said Felder. “And it is coming from people who were not even around then.”
But James, the 91-year-old bishop, believes, like King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long.”
“I don’t think the tide can be changed,” he said. “The greater the attempt to repress, the greater the motivation to increase.”