March on Washington created ‘an atmosphere of wonder’ in 1963

In Annapolis, a memorial will honor ‘foot soldiers’ who heeded King’s words

Barbara Blackburn was 22 years old when she hopped in a cab as the sun rose on Aug. 28, 1963, and headed toward the Lincoln Memorial.

She was one of about 250,000 people on the Mall that historic day 50 years ago to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and inspire a peaceful civil rights revolution. On Wednesday, President Obama is set to lead a celebrity-studded anniversary event at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the march, while in Annapolis a granite memorial dedicated to the “foot soldiers” of the civil rights rally, like Ms. Blackburn, will be unveiled.


SEE ALSO: ‘Let Freedom Ring’ march anniversary a global event designed for all


The celebrations are a stark contrast to that day a half-century ago, when Ms. Blackburn remembers a quiet city — liquor stores were closed and D.C. police stood close watch over the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. All around her, people spoke in hushed tones about what the day might bring.

“It was an atmosphere of wonder. It was an atmosphere of awe,” said Ms. Blackburn, a retired Maryland teacher. “People were so happy to be there. It’s just a day you will never forget.”

King’s words from that day are etched into monuments across the country, but now a Maryland man has spearheaded an effort to erect a memorial for the 250,000 people who attended the march during a volatile time in U.S. history.

“These are the men and women who came from around the country — butchers, barbers, beauticians, farmers, they were everyday people,” said Carl Snowden, chairman of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee in Annapolis. “Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a wonderful, eloquent speech, but the day has been framed in his personality. Dr. King would be the first to tell you — no matter how eloquent he was — had the crowd not attended, his speech would not have any impact whatsoever on this nation.”

The $50,000 memorial is at the intersection of Clay and Calvert streets in Annapolis, across from a bus terminal used by residents to travel to the march.

The monument is comprised of three large granite tablets. One tablet describes the purpose of the memorial, while another will be etched with the names of 500 of what organizers refer to as the “foot soldiers” of the movement — a random sampling of those who attended the march. The third tablet will display a photograph of King addressing the thousands of people gathered between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.


SEE ALSO: King’s dream: Looking back, marching forward for a new generation


Among them was Gwen Day Fuller, an 18-year-old Hampton University student who took a bus from her family’s home in Alexandria.

“It was just a very exciting time,” said the 30-year veteran teacher who still lives in Alexandria. “So many things were happening, so many feelings I had about racial issues living in a house with a father who was always involved in working hard to make a change.”

Growing up, Ms. Fuller said she faced segregation every day, whether it was separate bathrooms at a restaurant, having to take a bus into the District to go roller-skating because the rink near her home would not allow her to enter, or knowing she could not stop in a coffee shop for hot chocolate on a cold night.

“It was just a sense of this is a time of possibility,” Ms. Fuller said, recalling the feeling of standing near the Reflecting Pool on that August day.

Marc Apter was an 18-year-old college student in 1963.

Recruited by his father, who was performing public relations for the march, Mr. Apter worked as a runner.

“I took press releases and drafts of speeches from the press tent at the base of the speaker’s podium,” Mr. Apter said. “Basically I was running up and down all day. But if I was interested in what was going on, I’d stop and participate. When King started his speech, even though he was the last speaker and wasn’t so famous at the time, everybody stopped to pay attention.”

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