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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BOND: What was really wonderful about the March on Washington is this is the first time most white people watching this on television had ever seen Dr. King give a full speech. They'd heard snippets and pieces of his oratory, but he was such a wonderful speaker, and he made an argument for the rightness of black protest.

HOROWITZ: I think the biggest expenditure made was for the sound system. I remember Bayard being absolutely adamant that everybody on that Mall had to hear every minute of every speech. And it's sort of amazing to think about that now if you think that Dr. King gave that speech without a Jumbotron--250,000 people in the trees down the Mall watched him and listened to him.

MAXINE WOOD: That "I have a dream"--to hear it, initially, was an important experience. To hear him give that message made you believe you did have a dream, and it was very inspiring. A lot of people probably had not focused on those possibilities. We live in realities, but the image that he gave was a future.

JONES: If you listen to the speech carefully--and this is important as we reflect now 50 years back--if you listen to the syntax of his reference to the dream, he does not speak in the present tense. He speaks in the future tense. He's speaking in his hope and belief in America. "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Future tense.

Dr. King's speech at the March on Washington was an affirmation of his prophetic belief that America had the capacity to be the best that it could be. The "I Have a Dream" speech was a summons, a call, to the collective conscience of America, that we can be better than this. We can be better than this!

BAEZ: There are some times when you know something is going to be historic. I was just at Woodstock--went back and revisited the place--and we knew that. And certainly by the time this few hundred thousand people had gathered, you knew that whatever it was you were going to say or do was going to be recorded as part of history.

ADELMAN: When I hear that speech--I mean this is what, 50 years later?--I still cry. It's so extraordinary, but when he finished speaking, I really had a profound sense that it was now almost inevitable. Such a force had been unleashed that history was moving. He had spoken in front of Lincoln's likeness, and I said, This is going to happen.

SMITH: It was a ritual--it was a procession of church. It was never, ever a march. It was a congregation that was answering the call.

YARROW: It changed the course of our lives. It gave us not only an internal sense of what we believed in being validated, but it gave us a sense of the community of commitment that was to change America. Not only in terms of African Americans, but to be able to say that ordinary human beings can gather together in large numbers, and if they gather together with heart and strength, they can change the course of history.

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