A walk to remember
Three local women look back on their participation in the 1963 March on Washington
As a “somewhat politically informed” seventh-grader growing up in Arlington, Va., Grace Marvin remembers being “flabbergasted” when a friend of her mother’s asked if she’d like to attend a civil-rights march in nearby Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963.
Thrilled as she was, even her 13-year-old imagination couldn’t begin to capture the scale and importance of the event—formally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—she would attend.
Marvin was among an estimated 300,000 people who marched on the National Mall that day in what remains one of the most significant political rallies in U.S. history. The march is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and a landmark event that helped lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“I’d never been in anything like it,” Marvin recalled of the march, “but then again, nobody really had. There’d never been a march near that size in Washington before.”
Celebrations commemorating the day have taken place all over the country in the last few weeks, with President Barack Obama speaking at the nation’s largest remembrance—in Washington, D.C.— yesterday (Aug. 28). Locally, Marvin and two other Chico women who attended the original 1963 event—Diana Fogel and Wendy Brown—planned to lead a march Aug. 28 from the Dorothy Johnson Center on 16th Street in the Chapmantown neighborhood to the statue of King in Community Park on 20th Street.
Fogel, who was 20 in 1963, recalled living in Boston at the time, where a group organized buses to transport participants to the capital. Prior to the march, she said she had enthusiastically supported President John F. Kennedy, and was sympathetic to the civil-rights movement. She and a friend arrived to find the buses full, but numerous families offering space in their cars. The pair had to separate, and she took a ride with two African-American men, one of whom also brought his young son.
Brown was in her early 20s and on a break from college before attending graduate school at Harvard University. Already a budding civil-rights activist, she was visiting friends in Harlem who volunteered with Operation Crossroads Africa (OCA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to building relations between North America and Africa formed in 1958. OCA also organized bus rides to Washington, and Brown jumped on.
Like Marvin, neither Fogel nor Brown anticipated the size of the event. As they individually shared their memories from a half-century ago, their strongest recollections were of the sheer mass of people, and of an overwhelming feeling of unity.
“Like any big event, there was just so much going on that it was hard to get a full sense of it all,” said Brown, who stood near one of the pillars of the Lincoln Memorial as King spoke. “But the most moving, amazing memory I have is of that huge sea of people. There was this wonderful feeling to the march and to the whole day. It was a good, pure, positive kind of crowd energy that maybe isn’t so common today.”
Fogel offered her memories of King’s turn at the podium.
“When he started speaking, I was listening, because I knew he was kind of famous and that he was on the side I felt for,” Fogel said, laughing as she recalled a time when King wasn’t a household name. “But somewhere during the speech I realized, ‘Wow, this guy is really saying it!’
“He was really laying out the big picture. I was attentive when he’d started, but as he kept speaking I was glued to every word.”
The women also recalled the courage and pride of the marchers that day—an estimated 80 percent of whom were black—and noted some traveled long distances through hostile territory to participate.
“A lot of people had a very hard time getting there,” Brown explained. “They couldn’t stay in motel rooms along the way, and sometimes couldn’t even stop for a cup of coffee or gas without putting themselves in danger.”
Just as the March on Washington was a landmark moment in the civil-rights movement, all three women regard it as a pivotal personal moment, with lasting effects on their lives. Each committed deeply to civil-rights causes after the march, and all three remain politically active today, devoting their efforts to social, economic and environmental justice to varying degrees.
Brown spent the following summer in Birmingham, Ala., teaching third-graders as part of a joint program between Harvard and Alabama’s Miles College. She lived on the college’s all-black campus and—even as a white woman—felt the force of Southern prejudice during the tumultuous times.
“Nobody could really object to us being there to teach third-graders to read, but we were treated horribly when we’d go out in an integrated group, like socially or even just to do our laundry together,” she said. “It was the only time in my life when I remember having to even be afraid of the police officers.”
Fogel ended up in Mississippi a few years after the march, taking depositions from blacks who’d been denied the right to vote—a job that local court reporters refused to do.
“The things I heard have always stuck with me, like how the workers at the registrar of voters would turn the closed sign around as [African-American] people walked up to the door to register,” she recalled. “In one case, a young man was dragged behind a truck and killed.”
Marvin went on to join the Volunteers in Service in America (VISTA), a national service program started by Kennedy dedicated to fighting poverty. She worked with poor black students—the children of sharecroppers, she noted—in southwestern Virginia. She is currently involved with the Sierra Club and the Butte Environmental Council.
All three women also agreed that there’s still a long way to go in fighting inequality, citing recent events like the Trayvon Martin shooting and verdict; racial profiling; and the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down part of the Voting Rights Act.
“There’s still so much institutionalized racism,” Marvin said. “Aside from any laws about how people should be treated, there are practices that keep minority groups of all kinds down in many areas—economic, legal, social, housing, employment, education. There’s racism that spills into all of these institutions.
“We’ve made a lot of progress and some people have benefited greatly, but we still have a long way to go.”