By Mike Myslinski
Judy Collier at the March on Washington
It was more than a teachable moment - it was a teachable year for the country.
Three retired Bay Area educators were witnesses to civil rights history in 1963. They have vivid memories of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 summers ago, where they sang songs with a mass of humanity and listened in awe at a peaceful protest like the nation had never seen.
Organizers expected a crowd of 100,000. A crowd of about 250,000 came - white, African American, poor, wealthy, famous, young and old. It was a hot summer day, and it was time to turn up the heat.
Margaret Browne, Judy Collier and Harriet Hutchinson were thrilled to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech, which transfixed the country with its passion and purpose. These young women from Tennessee, Illinois and New Jersey believed in the formal demands of the march organizers, which included an immediate end to segregation in schools, an improved national minimum wage, voting rights, a federal jobs program, and “comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress.”
And they agree today that the event has lots to offer new generations of students about perseverance and dedication to the cause of civil rights and the ongoing fight for social and economic justice. There are still lessons to be learned and taught. The march led to President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the U.S. Supreme Court recently watered down in June.
They sang songs locked in arms with friends and strangers, songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Performers at the Lincoln Memorial included Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. It was Jackson, standing near Dr. King, who urged him during his speech to go off-script somewhat and “tell them about the dream, Martin.” His improvising immortalized his words and electrified the crowd.
The nation was battered by racism and violence in 1963. In January, new Alabama Gov. George Wallace proclaimed his defiant policy of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In May, high-powered fire hoses and police attack dogs assaulted peaceful civil rights marchers in Birmingham, Ala. President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard in June to force Wallace to step aside and desegregate the University of Alabama - and then Kennedy proposed his own landmark civil rights legislation. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered in June, shot in the back outside his home in Mississippi. In September, four black girls were killed by a dynamite bomb blast at a Birmingham church. And in November, President Kennedy rode in an open car in Dallas as shots rang out.
But on Aug. 28, 1963, these three women were in Washington, full of hope and a hunger for social justice, taking part in one of the largest political rallies the U.S. has ever seen.
Margaret Browne drove hundreds of miles to Washington from her segregated hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., with three friends. A graduate student at the University of Tennessee at the time, Browne had taken part in protests against segregated lunch counters in Tennessee. She worked in Alabama from 1960 to 1962 at a rural school. As an African American, she feared for her safety there. “It scared the hell out of me, because you could be shot and killed and nothing would be done about it.” She moved to California in 1987 and spent 20 years as a public school teacher in the Bay Area, mostly teaching high school biology and chemistry in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. The Washington march and rally was “inspiring and enlightening.”
“The crowd was so huge that I couldn’t see the speakers. However, I could hear them over the public address system,” Browne recalls. “It was something that you felt compelled to go to. It was the thing to do, it was the place to go, it was the place to be.”
Her boyfriend at the time was an organizer with the famed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key civil rights group that led voter registration drives and the “Freedom Riders” protests, where activists rode interstate buses in the deep South during the 1960s, in states where federal laws against interstate bus segregation were being ignored.
Local police were out in force, expecting riots or worse. The crowd remained peaceful.
“There was no animosity, no hostility there. But then, that was another era. We expected to go somewhere and act in an appropriate manner. It’s not like today where, if you’re in a crowd, there may be hostilities or people fighting. That was not there. It was huge, as I recall, and a friendly crowd,” she says.
“After the march, our group drove to Danville, Virginia, to visit friends who were SNCC organizers. We were followed and stopped several times by the Danville police before we arrived at the residence where our friends were staying. However, the entire experience, at the march and in Danville, was inspiring and enlightening.”
Browne questions how much of King’s dream of racial equality has become a reality. “I didn’t believe there would ever be a black president in my lifetime,” she says, but she feels President Obama is too cautious and spends too much time appealing to corporations and the middle of America. “And the middle at this point is really moving to the right,” she adds.
“We have a lot of work to do, in my opinion, because we still have racism.” Too many blacks are still being incarcerated, for example. But segregation is gone.
She recalls how, in 2010, on a family vacation trip, her group got a little lost and ended up driving into Mississippi by accident. In a restaurant, “the whole place was integrated.” She sat where she wanted.
She turned to her grandson, who was 17 at the time, and said, “You know, when I was your age, this could not have been the case.” He looked at her as if to say, “Grandma, what are you talking about?”
Judy Collier took a train to Washington from her hometown of Chicago, the daughter of progressive parents and granddaughter of a suffragist. The plan was to meet up with her boyfriend at the time, who was taking a bus from Atlanta, at the far left pillar of the Lincoln Memorial (amazingly, they did). Judy Collier moved to California in 1964 in time to take part in the free speech movement at UC Berkeley, and taught elementary kids for 25 years in West Contra Costa Unified. She took 17 black-and-white pictures at the march and treasures those images, using them now when she gives school talks about what the early civil rights struggles meant.
She still has her iconic button from the protest showing two hands, black and white, firmly clasping. It is a badge of honor. In her talks with younger students, she has them cut out paper copies of the button and threads each circle with yarn so kids can wear the badge around their necks.
“I didn’t know it then, but this was to be one of the most memorable days of my life,” Collier says of her Washington experience.
“I remember a little boy selling newspapers with the headline, ‘They’re Pouring In From All Over.’ There was a group of people from North Carolina singing freedom songs. We had arrived early enough to get up close on the grass. Everyone was dressed up, as if they were going to work or church. There were young and old, white and black, and such a feeling of hope and unity.
“I’ll never forget when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, or how we held hands and sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ afterwards. One of my photos shows the signs that the folks in front of us carried: ‘We March For Effective Civil Rights Now!’ and ‘We March For Integrated Schools Now!’”
The decorum of the crowd struck her. “To see the sea of faces, black and white, everybody dressed up like they were going to church - it was overwhelming. There was this hope that things would change.”
She has hope today as well. “If we come together, anything is possible.”
Harriet Hutchinson was a college student in New Jersey in 1963. She says she was different from other students: “Everybody had pictures of the Beatles up in their dorm rooms. I had Bob Dylan.” She is Jewish and remembers how Jews and people of color were placed in one certain dorm. Hutchinson continued to be active in the civil rights movement after the march, moved to California in 1967, and taught in Oakland Unified School District for 40 years before retiring. She still coaches beginning teachers part time for the district, and she clearly remembers driving to Washington from New Jersey with a friend that summer.
“There were people everywhere! I had never been anyplace where there were so many people. There was no fear. There was so much camaraderie and good feelings, and everyone stopped to talk to each other, asking where they were from. We walked together. We sang together. On the day of the event, it was so crowded, we couldn’t get very close. So it was difficult to see, but the sound system was good, and we were able to hear.
“I remember feeling very proud that I was part of this event and that I was able to be counted. It turned out to be just the beginning for me.”
Hutchinson marched in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., a landmark event focusing on registering blacks to vote. Dr. King walked in the march, and when the tired crowd reached Montgomery, he came and thanked all who took part.
But the March on Washington sparked her heart first, as it did a generation of hearts.
“We drove down because we felt it was important that our voices be heard and our presence be known.”