Memories from the March on Washington: A conversation with my grandmother

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As a kid who’s half-black and half-white, the speech has always meant a lot to me. It’s at once an inspiration and a solemn reminder of the way things once were. Textbooks, however, sometimes have a way of making historical events seem less-than-real. After you’ve heard the stories enough times, they can begin to seem more legend than fact. My grandma was one of the many faces in the crowd at the March on Washington in 1963. And so, I decided to talk with her and get a more personal take on this iconic moment in history.

How did you decide to go to the March?

My brother was the NAACP president in Buffalo. The group rented a bus, and my sister and I went. We had two bus loads of people. They packed those buses with food and drinks. Back then, [the restaurants] wouldn’t feed blacks. They said we could have eggs and toast, but no meat. And wherever the bus stopped, they wouldn’t let us use the bathroom. They had signs up in some places that said “no blacks.” You see, I wasn’t from the South so I had never heard all of this stuff. It was really shocking.

On the bus, they told us why we were going, what to expect, how to react. “We’re not going to fight,” they said. “We’re not going to cause trouble.” You know, nothing like that. We were going there to be supportive. So, it was nice and it was really something to see. To see all those blacks congregate together like that, that was really something. It was very inspiring.

What did you do when you first got there?

We marched before he spoke. We weren’t aware of what was really happening. We were just having fun. My sister and I were young and were just following my brother. It wasn’t like it is today. My father taught us education and respect, he didn’t teach us about racism. So this was all new to us.

What was it like hearing MLK speak?

I was sitting right up there in the front. Hardly anybody was sitting in front of me either. You got chills just hearing him. I get chills now; I can still hear his voice. He was so strong and so dedicated. He wasn’t just somebody getting up, trying to be important. He was a dedicated minister. I heard his son on the TV the other night, and he just don’t talk like his father.

There were so many blacks. People from all different states were there. And the people were congregating and we were singing all these songs—“Precious Lord”, “His Eyes Are on the Sparrow.” I was starting to holler out so people would hear me. We sang before and after. Oh, it was beautiful.

The mood was serious because it was like a fight. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew the reason we were there: to support him and to support the blacks because there was a race problem. The South was much more bitter than the North.

Is there a part of the speech that you remember most?

I liked the part where he talks about his four children. Because I had four myself. I can’t tell you the words, exactly, but I appreciate it now.

(In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.):

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.

How do you feel things have changed since then?

Looking back, I see growth in some areas. In some areas, I don’t see any. I see growth in me. I was afraid. I was fearful of whites. I didn’t know how to make conversation. I didn’t understand it. But now, I can speak up for myself, and I cay say, “Hey, I live in this world too. God made me just like he made you. We see alike and we bleed alike. If you need blood, I give you my blood, and if I need blood, you give me yours.”

I have a different perspective and a different outlook. I feel that I’ve matured from a child, to a young person, to an adult, to well … my age. And I’m grateful. I don’t look at color. God made us all, and he made us all different. You wonder, how many patterns do we have? My God, I’ve been sewing forever! It’s a beautiful thing; it’s a beautiful world. You’re living in a better time than I was. I was on one side, and I didn’t know anything about the other side. It’s a beautiful thing to sit back and think about where you came from to where you are now. I had a lot of struggles through life. And I’m happy the Lord let me live to acknowledge it and to understand where I came from. I’ve been knocked down all kinds of ways, but the Lord pulled me up and pulled me through it. A lot of people regret the situations they were in. But I don’t regret. We made it. I’m happy.