Beverly Alston, 12 in 1963, HARYOU Leadership Trainee
“In 1963, there was a leadership program called HARYOU, the precursor to all of the poverty programs, and it was also a study of Harlem ghetto youth. We 32 trainees, mostly made up of high school or college students, were well-briefed on our purpose and lectured every day by people like Malcolm X. For the march, we traveled to Washington, D.C., on an uncomfortable yellow school bus.
“As a third generation Harlemite, I’d never even seen so many white people before that hot day in 1963. Adults had children on their shoulders and everyone was singing; it was such harmony.
“My attention wasn’t as focused as some of the older trainees and I wasn’t a Martin Luther King-ite — I’d barely heard of him. Depending on where you were from, certainly if home was a Southern state, you were marching for desegregation and freedom. Folks from the North were more centered on jobs and equal opportunity. But I distinctly remember a hush falling over the crowd as Martin Luther King Jr. spoke. I will never forget that or the freedom songs like ‘We Shall Overcome’ sung by blacks and whites holding hands.
Gale Liebman, 20 in 1963, Tutor in Pittsburgh’s Hill District
“When I heard about the March on Washington, I was excited, but my parents were fearful for my safety because there wasn’t a history of demonstrations in 1963. Ultimately my aunt, a retired teacher, told my parents that she’d go with me.
“The train ride to Washington, D.C., was 16 hours and so packed, I couldn’t sleep. We all held hands and sang. I felt that I was a small part of something big and promising.
“When we arrived, I remember walking toward the Washington Monument and there were a dozen neo-Nazi Party members with swastikas and flags. In 1963 there weren’t nearly as many hate groups as there are now, so that was unnerving to me, a Jewish person whose grandmother died in Auschwitz. They were surrounded by the National Guard, so we felt safe. Then before I knew it, people started singing again, and we began marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. It was clear then how, in peaceful and war movements, people are moved by song. It fills your soul. I sang and felt so exhilarated.
Teresa Jones, 29 in 1963, Washington, D.C., Public Housing and Poverty Activist
“The march wasn’t arranged to bring awareness to Martin Luther King Jr.; he rose to the occasion. He came out front, but there were other people on the platform that wanted to do what he did. Why they didn’t do it, I don’t know, but Martin emerged as our leader from that march.
“At the time, I was working with a reverend and organizing a group of public housing tenants to attend the march. I got separated so I wandered to the stage and stayed. I was right in front of the platform, standing near Mahalia Jackson. I can only tell you what I saw, but I remember Martin speaking and coming to closure. Then I remember Mahalia turning around and, in a voice we could hear, saying, ‘Preach, Martin, preach,’ and that was when he said, ‘I have a dream’ and went from there.
“I know people will yell at me but the march really inspired Martin, not us. People were inspired, instead, by realizing that Martin was the man to follow. Today, I understand that we needed a march because it brought whites to see our plight, and it also inspired black people who weren’t active to become active.
“Some years ago, I was in Atlanta visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and I met an older guy delivering the mail. We spoke about the King Center and he told me, ‘Martin just stirred up trouble, and we didn’t want to stir up no trouble.’ Folk in the South had a fear, which was natural, and some possibly didn’t want King doing anything to rock their boats. I thought he was bringing light and justice to the state of blacks in America, but I think you have to stir up things if you want something.”
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.