Fifty years ago when the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom electrified the nation, buses came from everywhere, filled with people clamoring for social and economic justice. They didn’t yet know they would hear Martin Luther King deliver what would become his most famous speech. The “I Have a Dream” speech.
Among the crowds at the March on Washington were untallied number of New Englanders. Many have been asked their recollections about the march in recent days.
Below are stories about 10 New Englanders (and more) who were at the March on Washington.
Hartford, Conn.’s first black mayor, Thirman Milner was among those from Connecticut who made the trip. He shared his recollections with the Hartford Courant. Now-retired Pratt & Whitney engineer Robert Lewis of South Windsor was another. “It was the largest crowd I'd ever seen in my life at one time," he recalled. “It was clear in my mind that with the momentum that was built up in that crowd, there would be no turning back in terms of the civil rights movement.”
Though pundits predicted violence when the crowd converged on Washington, the reality was very different. It had an air of a picnic, a great festival. And one of the attractions to going was the chance to rub elbows with famous folks. Baseball played Jackie Robinson spent much of the day shaking hands, as did Sammy Davis Jr. Paul Newman, the longtime Westport resident, was also front and center at the march, among the raft of celebrities who showed up at the event, including future NRA frontman Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte and two singers familiar to denizens of Cambridge, Mass., coffeehouses and the Newport Folk Festival: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
Keene, N.H., sent seminarian Jonathan Daniels to the march. The recent discovery of a photo of Daniels at the march surprised friends, who didn’t know he had attended. Daniels, a martyr in the Episcopal church, gave his whole life to the Civil Rights cause. He was killed Aug. 20, 1965, while shielding a black teenager from a shotgun-toting white special deputy shortly after being released from jail in Hayneville, Ala. His shooter was never convicted. King would pay tribute to Daniels after his death, saying: "One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels."
Michael Grunko of Bangor, Maine, was only 17 when the march took place. Still, he made the journey in fits and starts from Maine to the March on Washington in time to be there. It was only one event in a lifetime full of activism for Grunko, who went on to be president of his union, SEIU Local 509. Now retired, he is still active in politics: “until we can dedicate our lives to the welfare of the common good, and not wealth accumulation, then we are not done," he said.
Gerald E. Talbot, the first African-American elected to the Maine State Legislature, has spent his life educating people about Maine’s black history. He talked to WCSH television last year about the experience of traveling to the march. “A lot of people came up to you and said don’t go. There’s going to be violence ... But you had to go because of what it meant. It was the greatest experience of my life.”
If Rev. Vernon “Little Arrow” Carter hadn’t attended the March on Washington, that would have been astounding. Carter was a lifelong activist and advocate for civil rights. Though he passed away in Vermont, he carried out most of his protests in Boston, where he marched with Martin Luther King when he visited the city in 1965. His determination to make change was probably most evident in his 114-day picket of the Boston School Committee headquarters. Sometimes alone, he marched with a sign protesting the segregation of Boston schools. In 1985, the Boston School Committee awarded him a citation for his efforts to desegregate the schools.
A contingent of 400 Rhode Islanders travelled to the March on Washington. Among them, Lemuel Fuller of East Providence. Fuller recalls the awesome sight of rows of buses marked with signs from the states where they came from, Massachusetts to Florida. And he recalls the crowd listening intently to the entirety of King’s speech and coming away inspired. King, he said, “Taught us not to hate or be angry all the time. Be concerned. Be involved.“
It’s a long way to Washington from Vermont, but the Green Mountain State was still well represented at the March on Washington. Paul Stone of Orwell attended with his younger sister. Arlene Carter, Bernadette Williams, Vernita Weller, the family of Rev. Carter, were all there, as was teacher Leda Schubert. Kimberly Cheney, former attorney general of the state, also attended with his two-year-old son strapped on his back. They offered some reflections on the march to Vermont Public Television.
Our cover photo comes from Flickr.