I awoke as the sun broke above the rooftops of Baltimore’s distinctive row houses. Peering through the school bus window as we left the blur of another city behind, I knew we must be near our destination: Washington, D.C.
It was Aug. 28, 1963.
Though a young teen brimming with anticipation, I was stiff from an uncomfortable few hours of sleep as we made our 200-mile pre-dawn journey from New Jersey. The March on Washington awaited, and I was ready to add my voice to the thousands of others assembling in the nation’s capital that day, advocating for social justice and equality.
When I accepted my friend’s invitation to join him, his mother and his aunt on the trip — sponsored by the Stelton Baptist Church in Edison, N.J. — I didn’t realize that Paul and I would bear witness to an iconic event and a turning point in American history.
The first thing that struck me was the huge throng — an estimated quarter of a million people — that was coming together as one on the National Mall that steamy August day, the mingling of so many whites and blacks of all ages as well as the good nature of the crowd.
Though today we are accustomed to these public multitudes of diversity, 50 years ago, the scene was extraordinary.
The largest protest in U.S. History had gathered, not in anger, but in hope for a better future for everyone. Despite widespread fears in Washington that this mass of humanity would erupt in violence, there was none.
The organizers took their place at the front of the line, and we marched with both purpose and good cheer from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, chanting slogans, such as “Equality now!” And singing We Shall Overcome.
Once we arrived at the white-pillared temple in memory of our 16th president, Paul and I elbowed our way along the Reflecting Pool toward the front of the memorial to get a better view of the speakers, atop the memorial steps. Before them was a sea of humanity stretching along both sides of the Reflecting Pool. Many listeners dangled their feet in the shallow water for some relief from the oppressive heat.
Though one person after another took their turns at the microphone, I can’t recall much of what was said that day until Martin Luther King Jr., The last speaker, began. As he repeated his iconic “I Have a Dream” refrain, the crowd was his, mesmerized by his thunderous cadence and the inherent truth woven into his words. King had captured the moment in a way that is emblazoned in my memory. Paul and I spoke recently about how King’s words –now a vital square in our American quilt — landed with such power and emotion.
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
We knew as we headed home that we had been part of something special. We had no inkling at the time just how momentous.
Looking back 50 years later, I can only marvel at how much American society has changed for the better since that day. At the time, vile racial segregation and blatant discrimination were commonplace throughout the land — and not just in the Deep South.
I grew up in a small town in central Jersey that was all white at the time; African Americans couldn’t buy or rent homes in our town. Racial bigotry was openly expressed. After the local newspaper ran a story about our participation in the march, I was subjected to hateful racial epithets from some of my classmates.
But the cloak of racism would slowly begin to lift.
Less than 12 months after the march, the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion or gender. It was followed up a year later by the Voting Rights Act that banned discriminatory obstacles to casting ballots. In 1968, within days of King’s assassination, President Johnson signed a civil rights law that barred housing discrimination.
The central message of the march — equality for all — also planted the seeds for other movements for social justice by women and gay men and lesbians. And, of course, in 2008 the nation elected, then re-elected in 2012, an African American to the highest office in the land.
The March on Washington represented one of the finest moments of American democracy in action. People of all origins came together to peacefully petition their government to enforce the core concept of our founding, and one invoked by King on that day: “that all men are created equal” and should live in a society of equal opportunity.
As far as this country has traveled to fulfill King’s dream of equality for all, there are still miles left in this journey.
On virtually every measure of economic and social well-being, African Americans lag behind other groups. Many of our predominantly black cities — from Camden, N.J., To Detroit — are in crisis, racked by crime and hobbled by joblessness.
Stark racial divisions persist, in how we view the role of government in helping the needy or in how justice is served in cases with racial dimensions.
The 50th anniversary of the march is an occasion for the nation to remember its importance in making our society better while dedicating itself to further progress.
Owen Ullmann is USA TODAY’s managing editor for print news.
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