Like most Americans, Ken Collins had no idea of the rising winds of change on Aug. 28, 1963.
Standing that day among a quarter of a million people along the Mall for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, his presence was barely noticed, although Martin Luther King Jr. and the leading figures of the march knew he was there — as Officer Ken Collins.
His assignment: Escort King to the podium.
A white guy who had returned to his native Washington after serving in the military, Mr. Collins had seen and heard of the bloody turbulence in the South, but segregation in a major city on the cusp of the Mason-Dixon Line was as a quieter way of life.
"I was not expecting it, and it's something I will never forget," said Mr. Collins, 78 and retired from the Metropolitan Police Department. "I knew a little about the movement but not a whole lot about him. I knew about the problems in certain cities, but couldn't figure out what Dr. King was doing that was thought of as so wrong to get arrested. I was born and raised in D.C. and never recalled anything like that happening here."
Indeed, even as the seat of government, D.C. color lines in 1963 were as optically stark as they were in any other Southern city.
President Kennedy was of two minds — one that segregationist politics and Southern Democrats on Capitol Hill would stamp his legislative efforts dead on arrival, and the other his moral conscience that repeatedly reminded him of the sands in the hour glass.
After several meetings with his Cabinet, advisers and civil rights leaders, Kennedy endorsed the march.
As passive as D.C. denizens had been, however, law and order for a crowd large or small became the order of the day.
George Lincoln Rockwell's Northern Virginia-based American Nazi Party, which hated Jews and blacks alike, was denied a permit to parade. Yet, sure enough, there he was on the Mall puffing on a corncob pipe. With him were a few dozen followers looking un-Gen. MacArthur-like, out of uniform and dressed in civvies.
The permit denial was but one extreme protocol taken by law enforcement authorities.
The march would be held on a workday — as far from weekend bookends as possible — hence, a Wednesday.
The city would order the closure of liquor stores and ban the sale of alcohol.
Military police, a position Mr. Collins held while in the Army, would line the Mall.
Highly visible, dozens of Army helicopters would patrol the skies and conduct low swoops around the Reflecting Pool.
At the ready in the suburbs would stand 4,000 troops, while 15,000 paratroopers were on standby in North Carolina.
Police officers from other cities would be sworn in, and even firefighters were sworn to protect and defend during the march, which was to promptly end at 4 p.m. so march leaders could later meet with Kennedy.
D.C.'s Chief Robert Murray, meanwhile, gathered his own forces and handed out assignments.
"[M]y sergeant instructed me and three or four others to stick by King, with the sergeant telling us to be on our toes," Mr. Collins said.
He never imagined the massive volume of people, the oratorical genius of King or the turn of events in his personal life afterward.
"I never imagined, never realized that 50 years later it was going to be the event that it did," said Mr. Collins, who for decades has been struggling with multiple sclerosis. "I was visiting Florida a year after the event, watching television and saw myself on television with King [speaking at the march].
"A son who lives in Atlanta visited the King Center and they gave him a copy of that photo," he continued, "and one of my daughters who's a school-teacher took the picture to class for the students on King's birthday"
Even though his MS means Mr. Collins has a "hard time getting around," on Wednesday, the day of the 50th anniversary, he hopes to attend a commemorative event in Annapolis for the unveiling of a 2.5-ton granite memorial that honors 500 foot soldiers from Maryland and elsewhere who attended the original march.
He also hopes to hear President Obama's remarks that day.
Calling King a "fine" speaker, Mr. Collins said, "I don't think he's up there in heaven completely satisfied."
"I think there's been big improvement here [in America] but things are bad in other places," he said. "Look at those countries where people are just killing themselves, people blowing up other people, and the events in Syria and so forth. Some people are never going to be convinced of human kindness."
"Can Mr. Obama make a convincing argument," I asked.
"He's the closest person I can think of who can speak like [King]," Mr. Collins said, adding "even though I didn't vote for Obama."
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at email@example.com.
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