Just after dawn on an August morning 50 years ago, 58 Minnesotans boarded a plane to Washington, D.C., and became part of history.
They went to stand for human and civil rights in America — to send a message to Congress that discrimination in voting, housing, jobs and education had to go.
After marching with 250,000 others to the Lincoln Memorial, the delegation listened as a young Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
They returned inspired, fired up, rededicated to the cause — and with their work cut out for them. Early in 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, in a memorable speech of his own, vowed to defend “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” That spring, in Birmingham, King had been arrested and jailed, and the nation had watched on black-and-white televisions as dogs and fire hoses were turned on civil-rights workers.
Several weeks before the Washington march, activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi, gunned down in his own driveway. Shortly after the march, four black girls were killed when their church was firebombed in Alabama.
Before the end of that year, President John F. Kennedy, who had welcomed the march and had called segregation immoral, also was killed by an assassin.
Among those in the Minnesota delegation were local civil-rights activists Josie Johnson and Matt Little. Johnson, now 82, is a former Minneapolis Urban League director and retired associate vice president and Regent at University of Minnesota. Little, now 92, is a retired post office superintendent and was president of the Minneapolis NAACP for many years.
In separate interviews, Johnson and Little talked about the march and its meaning, and about how America has and has not changed. Following are edited excerpts:
On attending the March on Washington 50 years ago this week:
Johnson: I had been working on the struggle for our rights long before 1963 — back to the days when I was growing up in Texas. So I had been deeply involved in the issues that were highlighted at the march. In fact, the march had been proposed in the 1940s — back then, A. Philip Randolph suggested it. But it was denied then … they worried that there might be violence and that it might create more problems than it would solve.
But in 1963, President John F. Kennedy said he would receive it. I remember it being very quiet that day when we arrived early in the morning. There was no one on the streets, and we wondered if anyone would show up. But then the crowds started coming. It was a tear-jerking, moving experience. We felt so honored to be there … to watch the program as it unfolded with speakers of so many races and religions.
And to hear Dr. King … I don’t think anyone expected that type of speech, nor the impact it would have on people across the nation. To hear him place all of our hopes into such a meaningful refrain is something we will remember forever … everyone in control, listening, nodding, crying and feeling the impact of his words.
It was very inspiring. We were fighting against laws that defined who we were, what we were and what we could do as a people.
Little: Running up to the march, Minneapolis had been built up nationally as a place for civil rights in part because of Hubert Humphrey … he made a tremendous speech on civil rights at the [Democratic National] Convention [in the late 1940s that later led to the Democrats’ including civil rights in their platform].
I was president of the NAACP and was called on to coordinate our delegation. I was so involved in civil rights that I wanted to serve those who had elected me to be NAACP president. But it was something I’ll never forget …
We marched right behind the large, boisterous New York delegation and ended up fairly close to the place where the speakers were. At times when King spoke, the crowd went wild, but there were also times when everyone quieted down — in great reverence for the occasion and for what he had to say.
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