The March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, was a seminal moment in the Civil Rights movement, which reshaped the social landscape of America.
With people converging on Washington, D.C., this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march and Dr. Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s landmark "I Have a Dream" speech, three local residents describe their experience of the march that day from different perspectives.
Former Oxford resident Claude Sitton was there that day as a working reporter.
Sitton, who attended Oxford College and graduated from Emory University in 1949, was The New York Times’ correspondent covering the South and the Civil Rights beat from 1958 to 1964. He would go on to become the editor of The Raleigh Times and News and Observer in North Carolina, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1983.
But on the day of the march, Aug. 28, 1963, he provided analysis of events leading up to the march.
"But I did not cover it," he pointed out. "I went down early on as the day started and talked to the people who would come in and went back to my hotel room to write a story, news analysis of what the events were that led up to it and where it might go up to that day."
The New York Times’ Washington bureau was covering the events and didn’t much want help from the Southern correspondent.
Sitton decided he would watch the day’s events in the same way most of the nation and politicians would – through television.
"I wanted to see what people at home, they were seeing. That march provided the proof behind the public’s political willingness to make that change. Congress had to feel the voting citizenry was ready to make that change."
That year, 1963, was an active year in the civil rights movement.
"There was the assassination of Medgar Evers, there was George Wallace in the so-called stand in the schoolhouse door at University of Alabama," Sitton said. "There was Birmingham. My God, Birmingham."
But the seeds of the civil rights movement had been sown long before, with Thurgood Marshall’s cases and the Supreme Court’s decisions.
Many of the leaders of the movement were World War II veterans who had served abroad to protect America’s rights and freedoms only to find they did not have full rights when they returned home.
And it would take key players, such as Lyndon Johnson, and historic moments, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, to bring things to a head.
Sitton recalled that at the march, about a quarter to a third of the crowd was white.
"Whites as well as blacks were part of the movement," Sitton said. "Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution, Harold Fleming, who headed the Southern Regional Council, and did more in his day to educate out of town newspaper men. William B. Campbell from Mississippi, who just died the other week, he was a minister who went around the South holding the hand of preachers who got in trouble."
Today, the issues that were behind the civil rights movement have changed, he said.
"You’ve still got the civil rights struggle. It’s different. The aims are different. The opposition to those aims are different."
In August 1963, Elaine Davis-Nickens was a 17-year-old just graduated from recently integrated McKinley High School in Washington, D.C., and headed to Howard University. Her parents owned Dutch’s Delicatessen on Florida Avenue, just blocks from the Capitol, national monuments, and the vibrant cultural corridor of U Street. Davis-Nickens grew up in a politically and civically aware family. Her father had fled from a small town in South Carolina.
"He always talked about race relations, he always talked about how things were. He’s the kind of person who’s always been his own person, which made things difficult for him to live in the South."
Davis-Nickens had read and heard about Dr. King and other civil rights icons who would be speaking that day. It was a heady time for a politically active young adult, and this was just one part – but an important part – of what was happening at the time.
The young teen walked the four blocks over and 10 blocks down by herself, coming close enough to see the people on the stage but not close enough to make out their faces.
It was a day she’ll never forget.
"It was a whole spirit of hope. It was just phenomenal the number of people that had come from all parts of the country. … I remember looking around at all those people, just feeling not overwhelmed, but just feeling full."
She remembered there were many people, including herself, who were crying during King’s speech.
"The sincerity, the appeal, the sense of what was right, not right only for us but for everybody… Everything that had happened to us as a people, everything that he led to happen, he (King) is one of the few people I’ve ever heard in my life who was able to articulate it."
Cheryl Board was much younger – 5 years old – but she still remembers the day. Her father had just graduated from the New York City Police Academy. He would go on to become a special liaison under Rudy Giuliani. He was driving with her from Georgia to New York and decided to stop by the march.
"So many people were crying. I just thought it was a big crowd of people hearing a man speak," said Board.
Board, who has a light complexion and multicultural background, first became aware of the differences in the world when she was visiting her grandmother, who lived in Virginia, and was told that she couldn’t go to the Woolworth’s counter.
"That was the first time I started realizing there was a difference… It instilled in me the struggle I would have the rest of my life."
This weekend, Davis-Nickens will be attending the anniversary events with her grandchildren, who live in Washington, and her grandson, who is the same age she was when she first attended 50 years ago.
She wants to regain that sense of hope from that day and pass on the importance of those experiences.
"The thing that bothers me is that I carry all that and... there’s a whole group of people who have no inkling, no idea.
"It’s one thing to read about it in history. It’s another thing to have been there and experienced it," she said.