Forty-eight years ago this week I moved into my dorm room at the University of Maryland in College Park. Freshmen were required to report a week early to undertake an orientation to the state’s flagship campus serving more than 30,000 undergraduates. The program also afforded the opportunity to register early for classes, meet with our academic advisors and purchase textbooks before the real crush occurred. By Wednesday we were getting bored and many of us were itching to go barhopping in Washington, D.C., where the legal drinking age was still 18. It was just three miles to the line (a trip I made many times over the next four years), and only six more downtown. For ninety cents, Greyhound would whisk you to their New York Avenue station in 20 minutes.
The Washington Post was reporting there would be a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom August 28, featuring Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, together with Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson and unnamed soul acts. That sounded like considerably more fun than another day of lectures about personal responsibility and academic rigor. So, half a dozen of us (all guys) hopped the bus with our real eye on finding some girls and then drinking ourselves silly. While I attended high school in the Washington suburbs, my parents had moved to a new job earlier that summer, which gave me the advantage of attending college in my hometown, but getting rid of my parents. It felt like a perfect arrangement.
Most of us had graduated from integrated public schools, but we weren’t headed to the Mall because of any burning commitment to civil rights. We agreed in principle with the goals of the organizers, and that was about it. The march was being held in the middle of the week because it coincided with the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. While Martin Luther King was to be featured as the keynote speaker, the event had been organized primarily by A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porters Union and Bayard Rustin. Also sponsoring the event were James Farmer from the Congress of Racial Equality, John Lewis on behalf of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the Urban League. On a hot, steaming August day it promised to prove a long program.
Arriving late, we found ourselves half way down the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial. The quarter of a million people in attendance were predominantly black, but there was a welcoming vibe for everyone. Unfortunately, the 1963 sound system wasn’t up to the job of reaching a half-mile down the Mall. The musical acts could be understood, partly out of familiarity with their songs, but the humidity and the crowd swallowed up the words of most of the speakers. Cheers would roll towards us, and we would bellow in approval, but without any knowledge of what was actually being said. No one was too bothered by this. There was no reason to believe this particular march would prove any more historic than the routine round of protests that carry their grievances to Washington.
We were soon dangling our legs in the reflecting pool with a group of co-eds from American University. Before long, we were on our way to an air-conditioned bar where we could cut our thumbs on flip top beer cans. Other demonstrators came and went throughout the evening. We ate and drank late, catching the final Greyhound back to College Park at midnight. It felt like we had enjoyed a hell of a good time. Through a hangover the following morning, I read about Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. It sounded like he had done his job as keynoter.
Five years later I was working for the Chesapeake & Potomac Bell Telephone Company in Washington when Reverend King was assassinated. I would spend nearly a week locked in a company switching office during the ensuing riots. The greatness of the man somehow became ever more evident once we lost his moral leadership. It would be a full decade, and three years in the U. S. Navy, before I fully apprehended the historical significance of the march I casually dropped in on. Yes, I regret that I was so callow a youth that I didn’t really pay attention to what was happening, but I still value the fact that I was there — that my voice provided one more call for fairness and justice in America.
We are a better country for Martin Luther King’s courage and he deserves the monument we will dedicate to him this August 28. The fact that an African-American President will dedicate this memorial validates the dream he recounted 48 years ago.
Miller Hudson is a former state representative from Denver who has been a contributor to The Colorado Statesman for close to 30 years.