1963 was a watershed year for our country and for me personally.
Two people who helped shape the world’s thinking died that year. Pope John XXIII died in June. He had convened the Second Vatican Council, which transformed the Catholic world.
And W.E.B. Dubois, founder of the NAACP and one of America’s foremost 20th century philosophers, died in Ghana on the eve of the March on Washington, Aug. 27.
It was the year that a quarter of a million people gathered in Washington to protest racial discrimination and to demand jobs. An estimated third of those people were white.
Before the march
There were other reality-shattering events that year.
Birmingham, Ala., police attacked demonstrators and arrested hundreds, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It was from there that he wrote his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Medger Evers, the head of Mississippi’s NAACP was assassinated in front of his house. Nelson Mandela was arrested with other African National Congress leaders during the Liliesleaf Farm raid. He spent the next 27 years in prison.
After the march
On Sept. 15, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed by racists, killing four little girls attending Sunday School.
Nigeria, Kenya and Zanzibar broke off their colonial chains to become republics. There was a military coup in South Vietnam. President Ngo Dinh Diem was arrested and assassinated. The Beatles released their first two albums. So did Bob Dylan. Sam Cooke recorded "A Change Is Gonna Come," after he was arrested when he tried to register at a "whites only" motel in Louisiana.
A month after serving his first 1,000 days and three months after the march, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas.
I was a teenager, not yet able to vote in ’63, when I boarded the train in Chicago with our Catholic Youth Organization from St. Ambrose and thousands of others to make the trip to Washington.
Not knowing what to expect, I was excited and frightened. We had all witnessed the beatings of demonstrators, the dogs attacking children in Birmingham, the debilitating water hoses that crushed people against stone walls.
Washington was the nation’s capital but it was still in the South.
We got off the train early in the morning after an overnight trip during which no one slept. We had listened to stories told by the old-timers and the few who had actually participated in demonstrations.
They shared their scars and their songs.
In those days, the movement survived — thrived — on freedom songs converted from church hymns. "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Jesus" became "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Freedom."
The tree planted by the water became a symbol for the persistence of those standing up for civil rights.
It was an ominous beginning. We had been warned to expect anything. Some were predicting violence, Birmingham-style. Some were afraid of riots.
The idea of taking 50,00-60,000 people (that was the original prediction) to D.C. was risky. In the early morning darkness, the station was lined shoulder to shoulder with soldiers holding rifles — some with fixed bayonets, many with gas masks attached to their belts.
In the fearsome air somebody started up "This Little Light of Mine." It lifted the shroud of fear and seemed to bring the sun. We exited the station into the brightest and most glorious of days.
Thousands upon thousands upon thousands filled the streets with banners and posters proclaiming freedom. There were giant ones that required 10 people to carry and small ones held by individuals who had made the pilgrimage.
We marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the gathering place at the Lincoln Memorial. Everyone was singing and laughing. Strangers greeted strangers like they were family.
By the time our group reached the Washington Monument the police and Army presence had disappeared and, with them, the last vestiges of fear.
Clearly, we all understood that this was not going to be about violence or riots. Rather, joy and hope ruled the day.
We were told that 250,000 people were there, far more than anybody expected. There were about 50 of us from our church, including two of my best friends, Ellis and Marion.
The crowd was thick. They covered all of the edges of the giant pool and spilled out over the Washington Monument hill and into the streets behind. And there were still people coming down Pennsylvania Avenue.
There was no way we could get to the Lincoln Memorial, so we settled in about half way up the reflecting pool to listen to the speeches. I put my hot feet into the cool water and drank in the moment.
I returned to that same spot in 2009 to hear Barack Obama take the oath as president. And I will return this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
History remembers King’s speech, which he made toward the end of the day. Ironically, He was not one of the featured speakers, or even one of the primary organizers.
A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Walter Reuther and John Lewis, the young firebrand from the Studend Nonviolent Coordinating Commmittee, were the primary leaders and speakers. And, of course, the celebrities: Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. One of my favorite moments was when Lena Horne was introduced. She took the microphone and screamed one word: "Freedom!"
But King had great civil-rights movement street credibility from leading the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott and from the letter he had written to fellow clergy that supported nonviolent protest even if it resulted in arrests.
King’s moment in history
In the end, of course, it really was King’s moment in history. His speech galvanized the crowd and transformed the "Movement." It changed us, the quarter of a million present that day in August and the millions — if not billions — who have heard it since.
It certainly altered the direction of my life.
After I returned to Chicago, I was filled with an uncontrollable restlessness. I felt called to make my contribution to the struggle for freedom.
The bombing of the Birmingham church a week later and the assassination of Kennedy a few months after that only intensified the tempest that was storming inside me.
By late spring of 1964 I was one of the hundreds of volunteer civil rights workers who went to Mississippi to register people for the Freedom Democratic Party. Many of us were jailed for our efforts, some were killed, including our brothers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mike Schwerner.
But that is a story for another time.