One was just 14 years old, a Harlem teen overwhelmed more by the throngs of police than by an orator’s silver-tongued message 50 years ago today in Washington, D.C.
Another was an NAACP leader from Boston University who marveled at the sight of some 250,000 people, black and white, all dedicated to stamping out racism in America.
Two others were young brides. One remembered pulling her legs from the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial and standing in deference to the prophetlike leader who delivered the moving speech still quoted half a century later.
The other recalled wearing her best church clothes and being overcome by the sights and sounds from her front-row position.
They were all there – Marilyn A. Hochfield, Tommie E. Blunt, Lesley Haynes and Samuel A. Herbert – four current Buffalonians who attended the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
Fifty years later, they all have somewhat different perspectives on the event that shaped a nation – and them as individuals. They’ve worn multiple hats, as social workers, missionaries, pacifists, lawyers, civil rights activists and grass-roots political activists.
“The value of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech came much later, for me, anyway,” said Blunt, 74, of North Buffalo.
King’s speech struck the four differently. They seemed more moved by his comment that people should be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Lost sometimes in the half-century prism of that day were the other speakers, Mahalia Jackson singing, the salt-and-pepper composition of the crowd and, at the end, the tens of thousands of people holding hands, praying and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
“I obviously think it’s a great speech,” Blunt said. “But everybody talks about the speech to the detriment about what went on in the march. Martin Luther King Jr. was great. But I think it’s a mistake to leave other people out. Without them, there would have been no march.”
Since then, there has been so much progress, with the election and re-election of the nation’s first black president, along with the strides that African-Americans have made throughout society.
At the same time, these activists cited the frequent racist tones found in anonymous website comments, the continuing challenges to the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the disparity in the justice system.
“A lot of things have changed, but not enough,” Haynes said. “You think things are getting better, then you wonder how far we’ve come. There’s still a tremendous amount of prejudice and racism.”
These four people, all in their 60s or 70s now, may have trouble remembering all the details from that one-day march. But they recall exactly how they felt on the day history was made:
Herbert was only 14 and had just started walking after a bout with polio. His most vivid memory of the historic march was being overwhelmed by the vast number of people, the huge police presence and all the police dogs.
When King began speaking, Herbert’s father, a Harlem preacher, told him and his brothers to keep quiet and listen.
It wasn’t until the ride back home that Herbert asked his father what King had meant by talking about a person’s character rather than skin color.
“My dad explained it to me, and he used the term ‘Negro.’ He said there are some mean white people who don’t like Negroes because of the color of their skin,” remembered Herbert, now a Buffalo community activist. “He said judge a person by how they treat you.”
Herbert returned home to 126th Street in Harlem, where he hadn’t felt that hatred. It was a mixed immigrant neighborhood, where blacks, Germans, Irish, Italians and Puerto Ricans all got along. But the teen heard older black men discussing the issue.
Now it all started to make sense for Herbert, what King meant in talking about character, not skin color.
The nation has come a long way in race relations in the last 50 years, Herbert noted. Personally, he marveled at having once stood arm in arm with President Bill Clinton and having met President Obama last week, greeting him on behalf of “the Herbert family of Harlem, N.Y.,” including his 92-year-old mother. Still, he cited all the people who despised blacks in the late 20th century. And how the election of the first African-American president heightened the dislike some people have for blacks.
Herbert also noted the continuing voter rights struggle, with the Supreme Court’s ruling and the efforts of North Carolina and other states to require photo IDs for voters, seen as a blatant tactic to reduce the black vote.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” he said.
Outright, blatant racism has mostly disappeared, he suggested.
“They don’t wear white hoods now,” Herbert said. “They wear pin-striped suits, they wear white shirts and white, red and blue ties, and some of them wear clergy collars.”
The clarity of a half-century has convinced Herbert about the main lesson from the “I Have a Dream” speech.
“Dr. King taught us that we are all in the same boat,” he said. “Either we row together or we all sink. It doesn’t matter what your color or sex is.”
Hochfield had just moved to Buffalo from Columbus, Ohio, when she learned that civil rights leader Medgar Evers, whom she had heard speak in Columbus, had been gunned down in the driveway of his Mississippi home in June 1963.
That’s why she attended the March on Washington.
“I said I have to do something. I just can’t sit by anymore,” she said.
She called the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” whose leader told her, “Bring a pillow and a box lunch, and we’ll make room for you.”
Hochfield remembered the intense heat that day, enough to push her to dangle her feet in the Reflecting Pool.
At first, Hochfield was struck by the camaraderie of the huge throng, a joyful feeling that “we were in this together.” But then she saw members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other activists – people who had been shot at, beaten and jailed. “By the time Dr. King spoke, I had been sobered by realizing what so many people had gone through,” she said.
That reality, perhaps mixed with the power of his words, led Hochfield to stand up.
“The feeling I had, the way he expressed himself, the tone of his voice, you really felt you were in the presence of a prophetic leader,” she said. “I remember being terribly moved by it.”
Hochfield, an attorney with Kavinoky Cook, also has worked in a variety of grass-roots efforts, including the Buffalo schools desegregation case, housing discrimination cases, the Citizens Council on Human Relations and election monitoring in Bosnia.
Much of that activism dates from that hot day in Washington, which forever molded her with its sheer mass of people, black and white, fighting for human rights.
“The March on Washington really made me totally committed to do whatever I could to advance civil rights for minorities,” she said.
Blunt was the president of the NAACP college chapter at Boston U, where he was an undergraduate in 1963. He had cut his teeth in the civil rights movement while in high school, and the march was a chance to show America, in a nonviolent way, the depth of African-Americans’ struggle against racism.
He remembers how he felt when he saw the throng in Washington.
“It was a tremendous morale booster,” he said. “Sometimes you think you’re not making the progress you want to make, and people are not listening to your cries about racism. Then you get off a bus and see 250,000 people, and they’re all committed to the same ideal you are.”
A retired employee of the Internal Revenue Service, Blunt served as president of the NAACP chapter in Syracuse for five years, fighting against police brutality there. He moved to Buffalo in 1984.
Blunt, like the others interviewed for this article, cited the recent Supreme Court ruling on voting rights and the efforts by some states to restrict voter registration.
“We seem, at this point, to be going backwards instead of forwards,” he said. “Racism is still a very large part of our culture, so it seems that Dr. King’s dream certainly has not been realized. We almost have as much work to do today as we did 50 years ago.”
Blunt, a Vietnam War veteran with two Purple Hearts, also talked about how blacks have served their country.
“We fought in every war, and when we went to fight, we didn’t ask for all of our rights to be respected before we fought for our country,” he said. “We did it, anyway.”
Haynes, like Hochfield, cited the murder of Evers as her impetus to go to Washington.
She hailed from England and wasn’t used to the kind of violence that flared with the Evers killing, which she heard about while living in Springfield, Mass., in June 1963.
“People opened up their doors and were shouting, ‘They killed Medgar. They killed Medgar.’ ”
Haynes was in an interracial marriage, a practice then illegal in 23 states. She joined the NAACP and headed for Washington, arriving at about 6 a.m. and ending up in the front row.
“I was wearing a dress and high-heel shoes, and my husband wore a suit and tie,” she recalled. “We were dressing like we were going to church.”
Haynes remembers King’s speech, with Jackson begging him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
But she was struck most by his comment that “one day right down in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
“That things could be different for our children, I wanted to cry just thinking about it,” she said. She also recalled the mood of the throng. “We felt that being there was going to change things, and everything was going to be all right,” she said. “Most people were weeping. We were overcome.”
Haynes, who moved to Buffalo six years ago, has found a pledge she had written that day in 1963, vowing not to relax until victory was won, pledging to push her friends and neighbors to seek the same. Since then, she’s been a social worker, pacifist and missionary, usually working with young people.
Then she cited the real legacy from that day 50 years ago: “Some of us have never stopped in the struggle for human rights.”