Fifty years ago, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom changed the soul of America.
It also changed the lives — and perspectives — of many Dayton-area residents who took part in the landmark civil rights event that drew more than 250,000 people to the National Mall to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
Some came on a whim, like Jeffrey Shablak of Middletown, who made a road trip with his buddies at Syracuse University.
Others came by chance, like Mildred Archie of Springfield, who had a job interview with the State Department.
Others carefully planned their journey, like Dayton civil rights leader Jessie Gooding.
Whatever path led them to the March on Washington, they all share the sentiments of Gloria Landis of Trotwood: “I’m always proud to say, ‘I was there.’”
Shablak said the march reshaped America forever. “I didn’t realize it was going to be that notable.” When he heard King’s speech, he immediately sensed greatness: “It was overwhelming and the number of people was overwhelming.”
As the nation approaches the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Wednesday, the participants are pausing to reminisce, to share stories. Shablak recently found a button he had saved from the march — two hands, one black, one white, linked together. He called his son and asked, “Did I ever happen to tell you I was at the March on Washington?”
It is also a time for national reflection about how far we have come since the March on Washington, and how far we still need to go.
Julius Amin, a history professor at the University of Dayton, said the march more than surpassed its original goal — re-igniting the civil rights movement. It is credited, at least in part, with paving the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Change in America was happening at a snail’s pace,” Amin said, “and the March on Washington was designed to save American democracy and to dramatize that there was still unfairness inside America. It was designed to show Americans this was a great nation if we could live up to its democratic spirit.”
The movement could not have chosen a better spokesman than King, Amin said, with his superb oratorical skills, religious background, nonviolent philosophy and acute understanding that his message must speak to Americans of all races and backgrounds. “His issues were American democracy, fairness, affordable housing, along with freedom, equality and economic opportunity — these are all issues that concern everyone,” Amin said. “He raised the fundamental question of whether it is hypocritical for America to be preaching democracy around the world yet not granting equality to its own citizens. He was the right man at the right time to deliver that speech.”
Archie, 89, remembers the friendly spirit of the day. When she and her friend pored over a map, she said, “a white lady asked, ‘Can I help you?’ We were really amazed. Any other time, she would not have spoken to us. When we got to the march, it was jovial and everyone was talking and chatting and happy to be there, blacks and whites sitting together. It would not have been as powerful if it hadn’t been so racially diverse.”
She landed the job with the State Department, leading to a 20-year career in which she traveled the world. But that one day in D.C. may have been the most memorable of all. “I have never heard anyone speak in such a positive manner,” she said.
Many local attendees returned home with renewed vigor for the cause. Civil rights activist Lloyd Dixon of Springfield, 80, recalled, “It was good to see people of all different races. It reignited my fervor as far as civil rights. Sometimes we feel we’re all by ourselves, and it’s a very lonely thing. It was good to look around and see other people who were suffering in the same way.”
Grover Criswell of Yellow Springs, now a retired pastoral counselor, had been only marginally involved with the civil rights movement before the march. He had assumed that racial discrimination took place only in the South, but afterward he noticed it in his own town in the form of housing and job discrimination. Upon returning home, he became the social action chair for the Council of Churches in Schenectady, N.Y. and started a coffee house where several hundred people would discuss civil rights and plan actions every weekend.
Landis, 25, then pregnant with her fifth child, left her four older children in the care of her husband, Ken, and took the train to D.C. along with seven other members of Bear Creek Church of the Brethren. The eight-hour trip didn’t seem long as the marchers sang “If I Had a Hammer,” and other freedom songs.
Landis’ sister lived and worked in D.C., but heeded city officials’ warnings to stay home because of the fear of riots and violence. “I’m sure she regretted missing one of the greatest events in American history,” Landis said. “It was a very peaceful march.”
Like most participants, Landis had no idea the March on Washington would be so historic, or that scholars decades later would rank “I Have a Dream” as the top American speech of the 20th century. “Dr. King had another speech prepared, but he threw that away and gave that off the top of his head,” Landis marveled.
She loves telling her children and grandchildren about that momentous day. “They really appreciate that I went, and they wish they had been able to do something like that,” said Landis, a retired library aide for Jefferson Twp. schools.
Back in Dayton, in 1963, conditions for blacks were very far from ideal. There was a lack of blacks in key political positions. “Blacks in Dayton could not go into department stores like Rike’s and try on clothes,” said local historian Margaret Peters, 77, an adjunct professor at Sinclair Community College. “The only type of jobs that people could get were custodians.”
Blacks were also restricted in their restaurant choices, Peters said: “At one time in Dayton, there were only three places in downtown where black people could sit down and eat. That was at the bus station, the train depot and at a restaurant that a black man owned.”
Peters said the younger generation needs to be taught that blacks have not always had the rights that they have now. “One of the problems that we have is that some older people don’t like to tell what their lives were like,” she said. “If we don’t talk about it, the next generation won’t know it. They’ll just assume that we could always get on the bus in Dayton and sit where we wanted to.”
Amin said that America has made great strides since 1963, eliminating Jim Crow and electing its first black president, but much remains to be done. “We no longer have ‘white only’ signs, so some people assume that those problems have all disappeared, but the haven’t,” Amin said. “The economic security that was part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is still an illusion. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has increased. And there’s a huge number of blacks in jail. There’s something wrong when the numbers are that disproportionate.”
Amin also is troubled that the Supreme Court, in June, struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which required select states and localities to get federal approval before changing their voting procedures. “It’s clearly ironic that this happened before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington,” he said.
Peters sees racism in some of the backlash against President Obama: “We have never had a President, who even before he took office, had the opposition say, ‘Well our main objective is to make sure that he is not re-elected and that he doesn’t succeed.’”
Landis believes that King would have been very proud over the election of President Obama, but, she added, “we have a long way to go to achieve equal rights.”
True equality ultimately will be achieved, she believes, because of the prevalence and growing acceptance of multiracial families. Her own grandchildren have married African-Americans as well as people from Japan, Zambia and Peru. “We’re a rainbow of colors and languages, so it’s normal and natural to be with other races; they’re family,” she said. “You can go anywhere now and see a white person with biracial children or a black person with white children and you don’t think anything about it — it’s just normal. When you know people of different races and know people as human beings, it breaks down the stereotypes. It is no longer them and us; it is all of us together.”
When that day finally comes, Landis believes, it will be the fulfillment of the dream that Dr. King expressed so eloquently 50 years ago.
It was a landmark speech that will never be forgotten, Amin said: “It was an appeal to save the soul of America.”
Faces of the March
Jessie Gooding, 86, Jefferson Twp.
Jessie Gooding arrived at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., about 6 a.m. on Aug. 28, 1963, and waited to see if something great would happen. There was no significant crowd at the time so Gooding thought, “This is not going to be much.”
But then the buses came.
“By 8 or 8:30 a.m., you could see folks coming from every direction,” said Gooding, former president of the Dayton branch of the NAACP and former member of the Dayton chapter of Congress of Racial Equality.
Blacks and whites and young and old from across the country had gathered on the mall to hear about a much needed change in America from civil rights leaders, including labor leader A. Philip Randolph, a march organizer; John Lewis, then national chairman of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee ; Whitney Young, the Urban League’s national director; Roy Wilkins, leader of the NAACP, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others.
“King really put a spirit in you. He just aroused your inner man,” Gooding said. “Black people in America felt hopeless. King gave us our hope.”
Gooding and other local marchers said they needed hope because back home, the civil rights situation was not so great for the blacks. Prior to the march, blacks in Dayton were not given the opportunities to be clerks for banks and stores, an as cashiers or salespeople in department stores. Gooding, who majored in chemistry in college, recalled a time when he attempted to apply for a chemist job at a Dayton business and was told by a white employee of that business that the job was for a white man.
When Gooding returned to Dayton, he and the members of CORE continued their protests of Rike’s department store at Second and Main streets, where the Schuster Performing Arts Center sits today.
“King had solidified in our minds that we could achieve something by impressing the President that we need some civil rights action from congress and from the President,” Gooding said. “We were eager and hopeful that there would be some sort of change in America as a result of us going to Washington.”
Alvin Freeman, 78, Dayton
Alvin Freeman disappointed his softball teammates when he chose to skip a tournament to attend the march. Freeman loved the game, but, he said, “it was somewhat urgent to me, to be in the forefront and take the leadership. I just wanted to be different. I wanted to be going somewhere where everybody wasn’t going.”
Freeman decided that he wanted to march with people from San Francisco: “I was a big baseball guy, and I was pulling for the San Francisco Giants at that time. My friend was an L.A. Dodger fan, so he said, ‘I’ll march with the L.A. group, you march with the San Francisco group.’”
Freeman said he witnessed the crowds, mostly strangers, singing together while locking arms: “I saw people embracing. They showed the love, the concern, the care, like when you’re hugging your mother or your father or embracing somebody you care for.”
Freeman, a retired Labor Leader for the Chrysler Corporation, Local 775, said that African-Americans in Dayton became more enthusiastic about voting and began to select better candidates. “The march played a bigger role than I could have ever imagined at that time,” he said.
Grover Criswell, 78, Yellow Springs
As Grover Criswell stood on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, listening to King, “You could just feel that what was happening there was really important,” he recalled.
Criswell was a young minister from Schenectady, N.Y., eager to be agent of change in the country. “I was very young and idealistic. I thought we were going to end racial prejudice and discrimination in this country, and if we all got together we could move the nation in that direction,” he said.
He had come to the march with two other men from his church after one of the men suggested they do so. So, the three white men loaded a bus full of African-Americans and headed to D.C. Despite the fact that it was hot and dusty, Criswell said the large crowd displayed high energy for what was taking place.
“It felt like the civil rights movement was coming together,” he said. “All these different groups that were cooperating and sponsoring the march. And some of them were coming together for the first time.” He also was very moved by the music of the march being performed by folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez and Odetta.
Even more emotional was the singing of a group of African-American children from Mississippi, who formed a circle in the crowd as they sung, “This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine.”
Criswell said the moment brought tears to his eyes: “You knew that by them being there that they were putting their lives in danger because Mississippi was a hotbed of racial discrimination and terrible things were happening,” he said.
Karen Mulhauser, 70, Washington, D.C.
Antioch College student Karen Mulhauser heard about the march weeks in advance, but didn’t plan on attending. A biology major, she was more consumed with a chemistry lab and tests. “I was sitting in the cafeteria with some of my friends and two buses of Antioch students left campus to go to the march,” Mulhauser said.
“Here I was with a few of my friends and we were waving goodbye to the buses and lamenting that we couldn’t go and then when the second bus pulled away, we just looked at each other and said, ‘Really? We’re going to stay here and not go to Washington, D.C.?’”
Mulhauser’s group arrived in Washington before the buses that left Antioch did. “We greeted our friends after having waved goodbye to them several hours before,” she said.
“I remember that there would be predictions that there would be rioting and violence, because we don’t get that many people together, especially if they’re black people there and not have violence,” Mulhauser said. “It was incredibly peaceful.”
Sibyl A. Miller, 68, Oxford
The civil rights movement piqued Sibyl A. Miller’s interest, in large part because her parents were involved in human rights activities. Miller loved growing up in Oakwood, but acknowledged, “it wasn’t diverse in many ways.”
During childhood vacations in Florida, she was shocked by the “white” and “colored” drinking fountains and segregated restrooms. Her parents, Robert and Marilee Harris, called the Jim Crow laws “horrible and terrible.” With her parents’ guidance, Miller recalled, “As I got older, I could see this is not how our Lord and savior would want us to treat each other.”
When she decided to attend the march, her parents wanted to go with her. The family sat close to the reflecting pool, only about 50 yards from King. “When he got to the ‘I Have a Dream’ part, his cadence changed, and I remember the whole crowd got very quiet because something just told us we’re going to remember this. It was so compelling, so rich, so beautifully done.”
Miller is now retired after most recently serving as the executive director of the YWCA of Hamilton. And while she said the country has come a long way since 1963, there’s still room for improvement in race relations.
“There’s more of a subtle kind of racism,” said Miller. “I’m concerned about voting rights being attacked.”
Interactive: To see the Dayton Daily News’s special section of videos, historic photos, front pages and others stories about the anniversary, visit MyDaytonDailyNews.com.
The Dayton Daily News interviwed more than a dozen local residents who participated in the March on Washington and noted how their lives would be changed forever.