In 1963, I was a junior at Columbia University. One morning, I was reading The New York Times when an article caught my attention: College students from the North were spending the summer in the South to help with a black voter registration drive. Compared to the work those students were doing, my summer job as a receptionist seemed unimportant. I knew those students were risking their lives.
A few days later, my father announced there was going to be a demonstration for civil rights in Washington, D.C., that would draw people from all over the country. My reaction: “Let’s go!”
But would we drive there on our own? After asking around, we found out that the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had chartered a bus and we could join them.
I had trouble sleeping the night before the march. I wondered if we would be the only white people in the group. If that were the case, would the others be thinking, “Oh, great, they’re going to support us on the march, but how would they feel about their kids being friends with our kids? Or dating them?”
These questions — and my sometimes troubled relationship with my dad — gnawed at me.
On Aug. 28, it was still dark when we left the house and drove to the assembly point. In the street by the bus, people were milling around; there was a tangible buzz of excitement. We saw that we were, in fact, the only white people there. But right away a tall man came over to greet us.
“I’m Jim Johnson, the chapter president,” he said, pumping my father’s hand. “We’re so pleased you joined us on this important day. Now let me introduce you to some other folks.”
He did, and by the time we boarded the bus we were on a first-name basis with half the group.
At first, snoring and whispering were the only sounds on the bus. But as we passed through New Jersey (and later Delaware and Maryland), we were amazed to see the highway lined with people cheering and waving signs saying “God speed!” “Freedom now!” and “We shall overcome!” Hundreds of people, black and white, were waving and cheering us on. My eyes watered and my throat felt tight. I could see my father was also tearing up.
Once in D.C., we settled on the Mall close to the Lincoln Memorial and listened to speakers and music. There were gospel songs sung by church choirs and the famous singer Mahalia Jackson.
There were speeches by gifted orators such as civil rights leaders Whitney Young, John L. Lewis and Roy Wilkins who spoke eloquently of the long struggle to achieve equal rights guaranteed in the Constitution but still so far from being a reality for blacks. The marchers responded with clapping, foot stomping and cheers. Vendors sold hot dogs and pop. There was laughter, sadness and celebration.
The afternoon was sweltering so I wandered off to find a cold Coke. On the way, I saw an immense crowd of people, stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. I noticed the incredible mix: blacks, whites and Native Americans; young children and very old people; labor union members; church and school groups; men and women dressed in their Sunday best and farmers wearing overalls.
I was taking my first sip of Coke when I heard the resonant, deep voice of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the contents of their character. I have a dream today!”
The beauty of his words and power of his voice stunned me. I was rooted to the spot, transfixed. When I finally returned to the group, I took my father’s hand and the hand of the person on my other side. We joined with the hundreds of thousands at the march, singing the civil rights movement’s anthem: “We Shall Overcome.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d sung this song of hope and it wasn’t the last. But this was an occasion on which the we of “We Shall Overcome” seemed true. And not only for those of us on the march but for every person in the United States who knew what was right, and that felt like a whole lot of people.