FORT WAYNE – Fifty years ago Wednesday, there was hope, excitement, tension.
People were coming from all over the country for the march on Washington, but questions remained: Would people actually come? What would happen?
In the end, said Hanna Stith, a longtime civil rights activist, those who attended and those who just watched on TV witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a speech that “will stay in the hearts of anyone who heard it forever.”
Stith was joined by civil rights activists Larry Lee, a local businessman, and Edward Smith, Frost Illustrated founder, as part of a panel discussion at the University of Saint Francis on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the event.
None of the three were able to attend the actual event, but they recalled the day and discussed the times in which it took place.
Edward Smith, who was relatively new to Fort Wayne, remembered the push to organize buses to take people to the March.
Stith, who said she had long watched the news of the freedom riders and lunch-counter sit-ins, couldn’t attend either because she had a 7-year-old daughter and couldn’t find anyone to watch her. “I made her sit and watch the whole thing on television.”
She said her reaction was that “it was about time someone did something.”
There was, though, a fear that people wouldn’t show up.
“It was a shot in the dark,” Stith recalled. “We had no idea that whites and people of prominence would show.”
Lee, meanwhile, was a student at Indiana University working a summer job in construction.
“I asked for two or three days off (to attend the march), but my boss wasn’t sympathetic. I needed the job,” he said, and he realized he wouldn’t have one when he got back.
“I watched it all on TV,” said Lee, who worried about the possibility of violence. “It would have set back the movement, but seeing how things came off, the environment couldn’t have been better. It all was intended to come to pass.”
Much of the discussion Wednesday focused on life in Fort Wayne at the time.
Stith noted that blacks couldn’t eat in some restaurants, they had to sit in certain areas of movie theaters, and they were allowed to swim only one day a week in public swimming pools.
She said she worked in a salon downtown as a teenager and would buy lunch for the employees there, but to place her order, she had to go down an alley and place her order at the back door.
Blacks couldn’t eat at Coney Island, and no blacks worked for the city, Stith said. Smith said most of the activists in the community were preachers, doctors and lawyers, because other people ran the risk of losing their jobs if their employers disagreed or disapproved.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said.