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March on Washington ‘day that shaped my life’

Manchester president recalls participation

Just days before the start of my sophomore year at South Side High School in 1963, I sat on the grass of the National Mall, not far from the Lincoln Memorial, near the row of trees that lined the sidewalks on the north. The reflecting pool glistened in the sun.

It was a day I will never forget, a day that reignited my hopes for all people to be treated with respect.

My impressions of the 1963 March on Washington reflect my age. As I look back, all seems more complicated than it did then.

My parents were worried about my going to such a massive event whose peace and nonviolence were not guaranteed.

A church youth director in her 60s drove the station wagon that held six of us. I was the youngest. My parents saw optimistic naiveté where I saw commitment. Looking back, I realize we were all accurate.

While media this week repeatedly show Martin Luther King’s most lyrical comments, they never show the hours and hours of less focused speeches. As a 15-year-old, I was impatient during the long program before King’s message. I was thrilled to hear musicians whose songs I loved: Marian Anderson; Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul and Mary; Bob Dylan; Joan Baez; Odetta. Looking back, I realize I had not expected to hear music.

A group of uniformed young American Nazi Party sympathizers climbed into some trees near where we were listening. They stayed there the entire time. Their steady racist taunts and mean-spirited faces frightened me. Their messages, however, made me know deep in my heart that our nation needed this march.

At the time of the march, I did not notice or remember that many more African-Americans were present than were white Americans. When I notice that difference in the videos now, I am even more thankful for the amazing opportunity I had to attend. At the time, none of us realized what a monumental day it was for the civil rights movement.

In retrospect, we know the crowd was huge, but at the time, no one could have predicted how many people would show up. We did not know whether security would be sufficient. We did not know the march would be peaceful. Now we know these answers, but in our remembering we may neglect to realize how unpredictable it all was at the time. Would violence break out? Would police forces handle the crowds effectively? Would those opposed to racial equality become violent? Would the National Mall hold that many people?

We know those answers now, but when my parents waved goodbye to their daughter as she got into a station wagon of church people on Arcadia Court, they didn’t. None of us did.

It was a day that shaped my life. King’s words ring in my ears to this day: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” When he said those words in 1963, I felt hope and energy.

That dream lives in all our lives whether we are elementary school teachers, retirees, school bus drivers, Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo employees or fortunate people like me who work at colleges and universities where we see these dreams coming true.

Jo Young Switzer is president of Manchester University. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.