Today marks the 48th anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech and all that surrounded it. Since I am an erstwhile participant of the civil rights movement of the era, having lived in the segregated South, and arguably the only person in this department who witnessed a speech by Dr. King in person in 1964 (details elsewhere if anyone interested) I get to render a public opinion. Dump if no interest.
If you have never heard the original speech recently, you should.
The speech occurred as part of the civil rights march on Washington, August 28, 1963. I was a college student at the time in Georgia, right in the middle of the civil rights movement, and I remember it well. Not that I paid much attention to it as I had my own fish to fry, boozing, chasing girls and trying to get by with a minimum amount of effort in classes.
The segregated South was just the way it was for most of us in the early 60s. Segregation was simply a fact of life. We knew nothing else to compare it to. One of my college professors remarked in class that he didn’t understand what the problem with the Ku Klux Klan was as these righteous guys were only trying to defend the Constitution as it was written.
A trip to the Dairy Queen for a Brazier Burger pre-McDonalds (arrived in 1966) demonstrated two windows. One for regular customers and one for “colored”. There was a definitely “wrong side of the tracks” in most if not all Georgia towns; hotels and restaurants for “colored’ only. Any attempt to deviate from these rules was met by a conk on the head by a nightstick and a sojourn in jail.
My then roommate, the late Friendly Fred Horning hailed from Rochester, New York and one weekend we decided to drive up there in my three cylinder, two-cycle Saab to visit his family. We passed through Charlotte, NC in the middle of the night on the way and decided to have a snack at the only place open, a Greyhound bus station. We walked in and were greeted by a bunch of visibly surprised black people. Not knowing what else to do, we approached the counter and sat down. There was silence. You could have heard an ant pee on cotton.
So the counter guy figured out our situation that had still not dawned on us. Leaning over the counter and fixing us with a stern eye, he said “You guys see that door over there?” We looked that direction. “Uh….yeah”. “You guys need to get up and go through it”. Didn’t sound like an invitation so we took his advice and found ourselves in the rest of the bus station. We had inadvertently entered the “colored” area.
I am also arguably the only person in this department who has ever attended a Ku Klux Klan rally (1966). Driving back from somewhere one night, my roommate and I came upon a hooded Klansman with a torch motioning us to turn off on a side road. So out of curiosity, we did, to find ourselves in the middle of a full-blown Klan rally, complete with dozens of hooded Klansmen wandering around. Three big burning crosses and a Klansman with a PA system spouting Klan rhetoric from the back of a pickup. Pleas to burn out local Jewish businessmen and rout local black families from their homes. It was easy to tell the FBI agents from the local farmers as the farmers all had straw hats and bib overalls and the agents had frumpy suits and white socks, photographing car license plates.
We got out of there quickly but the enormity of what we had witnessed still had not burned its way into our reality. We were still dorky college students, witnessing without really comprehending much of an otherwise obvious revolution.
Then came the civil rights march on Washington in the summer of 1963 and everything changed. An enormous undertaking, attended by over 250,000 people packed like sardines into the mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. The revolution had hit the big time media and Martin Luther King was the focal point. Parenthetically, I was to be there in the middle of a similar crowd in April of 1971 for the Vietnam Vets Against the War rally, of which current Senator John Kerry was a major player. But that’s another story.
Without question, the most accurate and detailed description of that day’s events resides in volume one of Pulitzer winner Taylor Branch’s trilogy of the King years, “Parting the Waters”.
The Branch trilogy is the definitive history of the civil rights movement and is simply a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the period. I cannot recommend it too highly. Brach poured his soul into defining this era.
The King speech took place around 3 pm on August 28, 1963. Kennedy was still President. The number one song on the radio was “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas. King approached the podium with a set of written notes and began his speech as it was set forth for him. After a short period, Kind suddenly discarded the prepared notes and stepped into history. He fixed the crowd with a virulent glare; the words flowed effortlessly and flawlessly. Those witnessing it recalled that he seemed to have an out of body experience.
King found something inside him that grabbed the souls of everyone present and he didn’t let go. At the end of his speech, a visibly distressed King reached to the registers of his soul in baritone and delivered the crowning blow in a rising timbre, “Free at last…..Free at last…….” ultimately collapsing into a chair, totally spent. Not to be maudlin but Its difficult to conceive of a more moving communication from a human.
This month there emerges a memorial to Dr. King near the site of that day, replete with the inevitable divisiveness that accompanies everything in Washington. But having lived through a lot of this, I think it’s appropriate and I support it as it stands. Very few men have participated more meaningfully in American history. King deserves his place in history and his place on the Mall.