50 years ago, my mom, Patricia MacLean, got on a bus in Providence, Rhode Island with a friend and traveled all night to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, on August 28, 1963. Mom and Dad felt that each person has just one life, and should be allowed to live it to the best of his or her ability. They believed in justice and equality. They wanted the world to be a better place. They still do.
The early 60’s
Mom and Dad had watched the civil rights movement in the 1950s as their four children were born, they bought their first house in suburban Rhode Island, and dad worked hard at one and sometimes two jobs to support us. In the early 1960’s they joined some members of their church in taking a stand in the local movements for fair housing and civil rights.
Mom says that during the day, it was mostly the women who were available for picketing at the state house about the fair housing bills then under consideration by the state legislature. So when the word was put out about sending buses to the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, it wasn’t hard for Mom and Dad to decide that mom had better go, since Dad was working. She went with Joan Cunningham, Albert Garner (the minister), and many others.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963
Mom told the story of the march in a presentation to her current church in 2003:
In 1965 the organizers of the March on Washington sent a message: “We call on all Americans, regardless of race or creed to join the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, to restore economic freedom to all in this nation, to blot out once and for all the scourge of racial discrimination. The time is now.”
I responded to the call because I wanted to be part of righting a wrong. The NAACP rented four buses for the marchers from R.I. We left Providence late on Tuesday evening, August 27. We were told to bring food and water. I remember I wore a green dress and sandals. We rode through the night, dozing a little but not really sleeping. We had no idea what lay ahead of us.
At dawn our bus pulled into Washington. The capital district was deserted except for hundreds of buses parked in the streets. President Kennedy had left town. All the government offices were closed, as were the museums. We gathered on the grounds of the Washington Monument, about 250,000 people. A sea of people, black and white, young and old, priests, ministers, rabbis and nuns, students, families with children, and men from the United Auto Workers wearing their union caps.
I remember Joan Baez standing in the back of a pickup truck with her guitar, singing an old union song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” in her beautiful clear voice. A roar went through the crowd when a bus arrived from Mississippi. The people from Mississippi had great difficulty renting a bus. It was a dangerous trip for them.
The march began its slow move down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Lincoln Memorial. I will never forget looking up at that great statue of Abraham Lincoln, and singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
I wish I could tell you I was right up in front when the speeches began, but I wasn’t. I stood and listened to Marion Anderson sing the national anthem, but after that our group found a place in the back of the Lincoln Memorial where we could sit on the grass. The sound system was excellent. There were many speakers: A. Phillip Randolph, Director of the march, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, Dr. Benjamin Mays, President of Moorehouse College, and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who is now a congressman from Georgia. I wish I could remember what they said, but I don’t.
Then Dr. King spoke. Tired as I was, I knew I would never forget that moment. And I never forgot.
We went back to Rhode Island determined to make a difference. We fought for six years to pass a fair housing bill. We wrote letters, picketed the State House, held teach-ins, and formed a racially integrated group. We decided to integrate the Warwick City Park, a suburb of Providence. We all brought our children and had a picnic on Sunday and went swimming. We got no reaction at all.
Back at home
My memories of mom’s trip are pretty vague, but I definitely remember looking for her in the television coverage of the crowds. Recently my brother sat in as Mom, Dad and I discussed all this. He is a little older, and remembered that there were neighbors you might mention this to, and neighbors where you wouldn’t.
Mom bought an LP album of some of the March on Washington speeches and enjoyed listening to them, which is a memory we share. It’s also a memory that my daughters share with her.
As the years went on, Mom and Dad continued in their belief that everyone deserves respect and a fair chance and they acted on that in many ways large and small. It’s the most valuable family legacy of all.
This story is part one of a two part series. The second part concerns Mom joining the Selma march as it neared Montgomery.
MacLean, Patricia L. Presentation to the First Presbyterian Church, Holland Patent, NY, January 19, 2003. Published here with permission of the author.
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