We Were There: Memories of the March on Washington

They planned and organized, led and inspired. From Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez to John Lewis and Julian Bond, 17 participants in the March on Washington recall that historic day

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ORROCK: Think about this: The average white kid, to the degree they thought about it, we were taught all about democracy. You're taught all about what we stand for, one nation, and undivided, liberty and justice for all, all those words we'd been taught. But those words applied to the white people. And we would all chant them and cite them and read them and study them and hear them from our teachers and not face this enormous contradiction that this doesn't apply to everybody. Everybody's not equal. Everybody can't vote. Everybody can't get a job when they apply for one, can't live where they want to, doesn't have the same shot at raising a family with a future.

BOND: If the goal was to normalize the civil rights movement, then the goal was achieved. Not everybody in the country said, Oh, I understand. But many people then understood what they had not understood before, that black people were dissatisfied, that the segregation system they faced was untenable. It could not be maintained, and it had to be changed.

BELAFONTE: In the end, the day was a complete win-win. The Kennedys heaved a huge sigh of relief that there was not one act of violence. And to see at the end everybody singing "We Shall Overcome" and all the arms linked--we've said it often, but it's worth saying as often as necessary: there wasn't a dry eye in the house. And it was all of America. All of it. You went through that crowd and you couldn't find any type missing, any gender, any race, any religion. It was America at its most transformative moment.

AVERY: The closing was--I couldn't believe it. I'd been there for a whole week, and we worked in the office, we'd done all these things, and now this great march--it was just unbelievable.

THOMAS: It brought our struggle to the attention of the world. That was the most important impact that I thought it had. But insofar as me personally? I was going to continue to work. It was a motivating factor, but it just added to the amount of motivation that I already had.

ORROCK: Years later, I got a very special letter from my mother. Years later--after I'd been very involved and a full-time civil rights worker and always talking to my mother about what needed to change and why I was doing this--she wrote me a letter that she was really proud that I had understood this long before she did and long before most people like us had understood it, and that I had stood with Dr. King and with the civil rights movement, and that I had done the right thing, and that she was very proud of me.

LEWIS: After Dr. King had spoken, we went back down to the White House. President Kennedy invited us back down, and he stood in the door to the Oval Office and greeted each one of us. He was like a proud beaming father that everything had gone so well. He said to each one of us as he shook our hand, You did a good job, you did a good job. And when he got to Dr. King, he said, And you had a dream.


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