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For those who were there, March on Washington, King speech left an indelible imprint

Fifty years later, the crowd appears as a densely pixilated image stretched the length of 14 football fields, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, bearing up under suffocating heat.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, organized by a coalition of civil rights groups and highlighted by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, enraptured the 250,000 people standing on the National Mall and gave hope to millions more.

Before the throng and a national television audience, King delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history. It was a rhetorical masterpiece, full of biblical and patriotic allusions, an unflinching indictment of discrimination ameliorated by the repetition of his dream.

On the mall were people who would internalize his words in different ways. A nurse who used the speech for inspiration to get a Ph.D. A Navy man who took 13 Polaroid photos, providing a rare glimpse into history. A reporter who went to check out predictions of violence, but who came away with a different story.

Fifty years later, all find themselves in the Tampa Bay area, where the imprint of that sweltering, euphoric day of dreams lingers.

Time and storytelling have since imbued the speech with a nostalgia that enshrines the memory but weakens its meaning.

Some of America's bloodiest civil rights battles still lay ahead.

Less than three weeks after the march, a bomb killed four girls at a Birmingham church. In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. And King fell to an assassin's bullet in 1968.

The Tampa Bay area was slow to embrace King's dream of little black boys and black girls joining hands with little white boys and white girls. Schools in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties did not really desegregate until 1971. Racially charged fighting disrupted several Pinellas secondary schools — including Dixie Hollins High, which in the midst of prolonged conflict in 1971 removed the Confederate flag as its unofficial symbol.

Nonetheless, people who were there that day often describe the speech as a life-changing event. Several local residents responded to a Tampa Bay Times request to share their recollections with readers. Here's what five of them had to say.

Althea Lee listened as Joan Baez led the crowd in song.

We shall overcome someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We shall overcome someday.

Lee joined her voice with the thousands who stood in an ocean of bodies and sweat and signs. All around her, men wore their finest suits and women donned hats and pearls. This was church, Lee thought. A monumental, God-driven gathering. Not the dangerous riot some speculated it might become.

"The march was not a black thing and it was not a white thing, it was a people thing," said Lee, of Valrico. "And I think people were willing to die, if it came to that, for this special day."

Emmett Till's murder in Mississippi had roused Lee to activism in 1955. Eight years later, she rode the train to Washington.

Friends had warned her about going to the march with her sister and friend. There would be trouble, they said. There could be riots. She could get hurt. Who knew what would happen? A friend awaited her return to Grand Central Station in New York with water and food, aspirin and bandages at the ready, just in case.

"But there was no battle," said Lee, 74. "The battle really was to come back and tell the story."

Hank Millett brought his camera to the March on Washington, not sure what kind of event he would document. At the time Millett, of Safety Harbor, was a 25-year-old sailor stationed in Arlington, Va.

His 13 date-stamped, black-and-white photos give a remarkable behind-the-scenes look at a watershed moment in American history: mounted police officers surveying the crowd; people reclining on the grass; and two women in the back of an ambulance, overcome by the heat.

In another, military men carry empty stretchers. One of the soldiers also holds a nightstick — "so if he thumps you he can cart you away," said Millett, 75.

"I love this picture. Why I took it I have no idea."

On the way home he visited the Fort Myer Army Base, where he took more photos. They show scores of soldiers in riot gear with rifles, standing beside a pair of covered flatbed trucks.

Millett put the photos in a shoebox. They moved with him between jobs as a data processor in Hong Kong and Singapore, the United States and mainland China.

For nearly 50 years, he never looked at them.

"When everything started to evolve this year about the anniversary I said, 'You know what? I think I've got some pictures somewhere.' "

He scanned the images, uploaded them to his computer and enlarged them. Along with the memories came a certain satisfaction.

His first thoughts, he said, were, "Holy mackerel. Holy smoke."

"Looking back on it now, I am extremely proud to have been a part of that."

Jettie B. Wilds is a lifelong activist.

As a student at Morehouse College, he participated in marches and sit-ins and counted Julian Bond among his classmates. He was indicted and represented by the NAACP on the charge of swearing in front of a white woman.

When thousands across the nation were boarding buses and trains in August 1963, Wilds was teaching middle school math in Hillsborough County.

"I figured I'd better eat, so I stayed since I thought, 'I know those guys. I know how it's going to work. I've been through that,' " Wilds, 73, of Tampa said. "If I had known what it became, I would've wanted to be there. But I couldn't."

He was afraid to take time off, scared he'd lose his job.

When his friends returned and told stories of the energy and throngs of people, Wilds knew he missed something monumental. He thought he had known what the march would be. He was wrong.

"They were talking about it, telling me 'you should've been there.' I wish I could've. It was historic."

Bill NorthrOp was a 29-year-old reporter at the Beaver Falls News-Tribune in 1963. His grandfather owned the paper; Northrop would later become its publisher. Beaver Falls, Pa., said Northrop, 79, operated within a "subtle and not so subtle segregation." Black residents could admit their children into public schools but they couldn't join the YMCA or patronize certain restaurants.

"I don't care what the North says, there were different forms of discrimination," said Northrop, who lives in North Redington Beach.

In Beaver Falls, many expressed skepticism as the March on Washington approached.

"The kind of talk that had been going on was, 'You're going to get a group of Negroes, 100,000 or whatever — how could that be peaceful?' They were expecting that if you get that many black people together, it was just going to be a mob.

"We said, 'Well, let's go down there.' We went to kind of see, what is this? What's the tenor, what's the atmosphere?"

They found nothing to confirm the fears expressed by his neighbors in Pennsylvania and shared by President John F. Kennedy, who also fretted the march would turn violent.

Northrop interviewed marchers, and found "a kind of happy atmosphere; very positive, upbeat." He doesn't recall hearing King's speech live and thinks they might have left before then.

One memory stands out, of members of the American Nazi Party taunting passers-by.

"They tried to stir up problems and it didn't work," Northrop said. "People just nodded, smiled, said 'Bless you,' and kept going."

Beverly Mason was a 30-year-old new mother living in Washington, D.C., when she heard about the coming march through a politically active friend. Friends advised her not to go. It would be too hot for her, they said.

But Mason wanted to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and would not be deterred.

"It was like you were going to see the pope," said Mason, 80, of Seminole. "That's how important it was to us."

All of the speakers who preceded King, John Lewis and Roy Wilkins and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, were fascinating, Mason said. But nothing could top the main attraction, a man willing to suffer the indignities of fire hoses and jail time for his beliefs.

When he hit his stride with "I have a dream" three-quarters of the way through, she said, "It just made your knees shake. It went all through you. Not knowing what he was going to say. Not knowing he was going to be famous one day. Just to hear that.

"If you were down in the doldrums about anything, you came up."

Inspired by that message, Mason kept her own dream alive over the years. She had sailed through public school as a child, graduating two years early, then was valedictorian of her nursing school. In 1976 she enrolled in a distance-learning college to get a bachelor's degree. She followed with a master's from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, then a Ph.D in public health administration. She worked as a nurse practitioner and published articles and a book — all achievements she attributes to her experience listening to King's soaring speech.

"I never entertained the idea of a Ph.D until I went (to the march)," she said. "That's what motivated me to do all of these other things. I felt I could do anything."

This story has been modified to reflect the following correction: In an earlier online version, the name of former reporter Bill Northrop was misspelled.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

For those who were there, March on Washington, King speech left an indelible imprint 08/24/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 29, 2013 10:11am]
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