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On the march: Memories of ‘I have a dream’ speech remain vivid

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Eulalie Fenhagan and her late husband, Jim, were preparing to join the masses who had come to Washington, D.C., to protest racial discrimination 50 years ago this week when her mother called from Columbia worried about her safety and that of her three children.

“Eulalie,” her mom said, “now you be careful. There’s going to mayhem in Washington. Take those children up on the second floor and lock up your house and be careful. No telling what’s going to happen in Washington today.”

She had heard the reports from shows like “Meet The Press” when reporters grilled activists Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King about the public’s fears of rioting. Life magazine declared that the capital was suffering “its worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run.” The Pentagon readied 19,000 troops in the suburbs, and the jails shifted inmates to other prisons to make room for mass arrests. The city banned all sales of alcoholic beverages, and hospitals made room for riot casualties by postponing elective surgery. With nearly 1,700 extra correspondents supplementing the Washington press corps, the march drew a media assembly larger than the Kennedy inauguration two years earlier.

Fenhagen replied: “Mother, I hate to tell you this because it’s going to give you a heart attack, but I’m going on the march, and I have a sitter here for the children.”

Her mother, along with her maid, Creole, in Columbia, were filled with dread.

The Fenhagens arrived in Washington in the summer of 1963 from Columbia when Jim was hired as director of Christian education for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

“We were in our early 30s,” said Fenhagen, a resident of Litchfield, “part of the young Turks interested in furthering the cause of desegregation. We had a wonderful bishop who wanted to get all the clergy involved in the march.”

The Fenhagens had already taken one stand against racial segregation, so joining The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom seemed only logical. They had left the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., in 1953 in protest after the university refused to admit blacks to its school of theology after being asked by the board of the Episcopal Church. “Students revolted, and faculty members resigned,” Fenhagen said. “Ninety percent of faculty and students left, and we finished our education at Virginia Theological Institution in Alexandria, Va.

“We were in the spirit way back,” she said.

Episcopalians in Washington were encouraged to join the march in support of King, Fenhagen said. They gathered at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House for an early morning service and marched behind the cross to the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial.

“The thing so memorable to me,” she said, “was the good nature of the people. We could see all these people coming from the bus station, a sea of humanity going down toward the Lincoln Memorial. It was such a mixed bag of people, blacks and whites, a lot of whites though there were not many in pictures. It was a glorious feeling of spontaneous calm, joyful protest.”

The peaceful nature of the event was not an accident. Leaders of the civil rights movement had agreed to cancel plans for non-violent civil disobedience to shut down the city as part of the day marking the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. Violent confrontations had already broken out across the South in retaliation against demonstrators.

Originally, black leaders intended to focus on economic inequality. They felt that integration in education, housing, transportation and public accommodations would be of limited value as long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persisted. In June 1963, leaders from several different organizations formed the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, an umbrella group which would coordinate funds and messaging. King, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Wilkins, president of the NAACP; and John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were among them.

On June 22, organizers met with President Kennedy, who warned against creating “an atmosphere of intimidation” by bringing a large crowd to Washington. The civil rights activists insisted on holding the march. Wilkins pushed for organizers to rule out civil disobedience and described this proposal as the “perfect compromise.” President Kennedy spoke favorably of the march on July 17, saying that organizers planned a peaceful assembly and had cooperated with the Washington, D.C., police.

Despite their disagreements, the group came together on a set of goals that included passage of meaningful civil rights legislation, an immediate elimination of school segregation, and a $2-per-hour minimum wage among others.

The Kennedy Administration cooperated with the organizers in planning the march, and one member of the Justice Department was assigned as a full-time liaison. Chicago and New York City — as well as some corporations — agreed to designate Aug. 28 as “Freedom Day” and gave workers the day off. To avoid being perceived as radical, organizers rejected support from communist groups. However, some politicians and the Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed that the march was communist-inspired. The FBI called celebrity supporters to inform them of the organizers’ communist connections and advise them to withdraw their support. When a report suggested that communists had failed to appreciably infiltrate the civil rights movement, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover rejected its contents. South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond launched a prominent public attack on the march as communist.

As the march was being planned, activists across the country received bomb threats at their homes and offices. Five airplanes were grounded on the morning of Aug. 28 due to bomb threats. A man in Kansas City telephoned the FBI to say he would put a hole between King’s eyes. Wilkins was threatened with assassination if he did not leave the country.

Thousands arrived in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. Marchers from Boston traveled overnight and arrived in Washington at 7 a.m. after an eight-hour trip, but others took much longer bus rides from Milwaukee, Little Rock and St. Louis. Organizers persuaded New York’s MTA to run extra subway trains after midnight on Aug. 28, and the New York City bus terminal was busy throughout the night with peak crowds. A total of 450 buses left New York City from Harlem. Maryland police reported that by 8 a.m., 100 buses an hour were streaming through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel.

New York Times reporter Fred Powledge accompanied African-Americans who boarded six buses in Birmingham, Ala., for the 750-mile trip to Washington. The Times carried his report:

“The 260 demonstrators, of all ages, carried picnic baskets, water jugs, Bibles and a major weapon — their willingness to march, sing and pray in protest against discrimination. They gathered in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, where state troopers once used fire hoses and dogs to put down their demonstrations.

It was peaceful in the Birmingham park as the marchers waited for the buses. The police, now part of a moderate city power structure, directed traffic around the square and did not interfere with the gathering ... An old man commented on the 20-hour ride, which was bound to be less than comfortable: “You forget we Negroes have been riding buses all our lives. We don’t have the money to fly in airplanes.”

John Marshall Kilimanjaro, a demonstrator traveling from Greensboro, N.C., said: “Contrary to the mythology, the early moments of the march — getting there — was no picnic. People were afraid. We didn’t know what we would meet. There was no precedent. Sitting across from me was a black preacher with a white collar. He was an AME preacher. We talked. Every now and then, people on the bus sang ‘Oh Freedom’ and ‘We Shall Overcome,’ but for the most part there wasn’t a whole bunch of singing. We were secretly praying that nothing violent happened.”

Other bus riders stoked racial tension, as black activists criticized liberal white participants as fair-weather friends.

Hazel Mangle Rivers told The New York Times she was impressed by Washington’s civility: “The people are lots better up here than they are down South,” she said. “They treat you much nicer. Why, when I was out there at the march a white man stepped on my foot, and he said, ‘Excuse me,’ and I said ‘Certainly!’ That’s the first time that has ever happened to me. I believe that was the first time a white person has ever really been nice to me.”

The FBI and Justice Department refused to provide security guards for buses traveling through the South. Julius Hobson, an FBI informant who served on the march’s security force, told the team to be on the lookout for FBI infiltrators who might act as provocateurs.

Organizers of the march pushed hard for an expensive [$16,000] sound system, maintaining that they could not keep order if people couldn’t hear. The system was sabotaged the day before the march, and operators were unable to repair it. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his civil rights liaison Burke Marshall had the system rebuilt overnight by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Fenhagen remembers hearing clearly King’s “I Have A Dream” speech from her spot near the Reflecting Pool and thinking that she was a witness to history. “We knew it was a great speech,” she said. “He had a power. My memories are more a feeling of a wonderful sense of peaceful demonstration, a joyful demonstration not anger.”

When she and her husband got home, there was another call from her mother in Columbia who had watched the events on television.

“She said, ‘Well, you’re safe. It was really pretty good.’ I had made a little convert of my mother,” Fenhagen said.

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