Although it has been 50 years, Rosetta Schaffer still remembers the March on Washington as a magical, almost surreal experience. At the time, she worked in the Philadelphia office of the Veterans Administration and decided to travel to Washington on one of the two buses that took members of her church to the iconic civil rights experience.
“It was such a wonderful experience to see all those people who had traveled from so far with such a sense of unity,” Schaffer said in an interview with BET.com. She rode with a group from the Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, outside Philadelphia, to the nation's capital.
“There were buses along the highway, filled with people going to the march," she said. "And when we got there, there wasn’t a cross word among anyone. All the people there were so friendly. The memory of that trip is still lingering for me.”
Schaffer is one of a proud group of people who attended the historic march 50 years ago and are sharing their reminiscences of the event with a generation of Americans about to witness the commemorative march this weekend in Washington.
They share stories of the march, describing it as a huge gathering notable for its dignity and sense of purpose. They discuss the orderliness of the marchers, defying expectations of discord and violence. And they discuss the soaring oratory of Martin Luther King Jr.
“I remember it as something that was never done before,” said the Rev. Harry Blake, who is now the pastor of the Mount Canaan Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the time, Blake was a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Shreveport working directly under King.
“There was an aura of sacredness and victory in the air,” Blake said in an interview with BET.com. “And, of course, to hear Dr. King speak was awe inspiring.” He added that many law enforcement officials had expected some degree of violence as a result of the march.
“They were prepared for violence,” he said. “But it was the most peaceful march you could ever imagine. It was an incredible experience to see so many people come together — many of them Black people — in the spirit of harmony.”
Similarly, Wade Henderson remembers the event as one that drew people together with a feeling of common cause. Henderson, who is now the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was, in 1963, a 15-year-old resident of Washington, D.C., who rode his bike to the march.
“It was really amazing to see the crowd, so dense,” he recalled, speaking with BET.com. “What struck me was the quiet dignity and moral power inherent in the marchers.”
He added: “You had African-Americans; you had whites; you had a smattering of other communities. You were beginning to see the diversity in our country that we now celebrate.”
Henderson said that the upcoming march in Washington represented a time to look back and celebrate and, at the same time, look forward.
“This is a time to look at the men and women who, through their dignity, helped to bring about an extraordinary change in our country,” Henderson said. “We celebrate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These are achievements that we can celebrate with the March on Washington as the catalyst.”
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(Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)