One Marcher's story

The steady streams of recollections and images from the March on Washington, as well as the posts here at dotCommonweal, have been valuable and moving.  But I was taken by this small story of one man's experience of that historic day'.  Maurice Berube, now an emeritus professor at Old Dominion University,  was an activist in the Catholic trade union movement, an educator, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.  He is also the author of thirteen books.  Mo's account appeared the other day in the Virginian Pilot:

"I remember Aug. 28, 1963 as one of the most glorious days of my life," Mo begins, "but one of the most fearsome nights.

"Fifty years ago, as part of the historic March on Washington for Peace and Jobs, I heard the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in the afternoon. That night, as our group made the return trip to New York, bullets pelted our bus.

"On that unbearably hot Wednesday, a small armada of black and white marchers, traveling by car, plane and some 2,000 buses, descended on the nation’s capital and the Lincoln Memorial. The number of marchers was in dispute. One account claimed 450,000. Most observers settled for 250,000.

"No one expected the love-in that ensued. Civil rights, labor and religious speakers — the backbone of the march — spoke eloquently on the rights of humankind. Famous entertainers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary sang rousing civil rights songs. No federal official joined the marchers.

"The march was the dream of A. Philip Randolph, an aging civil rights leader and head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. But the de facto organizer was the legendary radical activist Bayard Rustin. Rustin recalled in Jervis Anderson’s biography (“Troubles I’ve Seen,” 1997) that the march was the most exciting project he had ever worked on and “the high point in the era of protest.”

"I joined the marchers with the civil rights group, the National Urban League, in Harlem and 125th St. in the early hours that Wednesday morning. My colleagues from the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists were already there. ACTU was fighting the Mafia in the trade unions, and I was the editor/organizer of the group.

"The trip was uneventful until we reached the Capitol. Both sides of the street were lined with African Americans cheering us. I recalled watching film footage of the Allied liberation of Paris, and I thought the event similar. We were buoyed by the cheers.

"The march presented a day-long litany of eloquent speakers, each outdoing the previous speaker. It was like a symphony reaching a crescendo. The crescendo was the last speaker, King, a virtual unknown to most of America at the time.

"The heat and lack of sleep made me ill, and I had decided to skip the last few speakers to go back and sleep on the bus. My ACTU companion urged me to hold out to hear King, whom he described as a magnificent orator. I agreed.

"His message — 'a healing speech,' my friend said — electrified the crowd. I felt my malaise going away.

"Back on the bus, we were into Maryland when the ride was interrupted by gunfire. Trip organizers ordered us out of the bus so they could assess the damage. They sent us to a bar nearby so we could call family members to tell them we were safe.

"I went in with a young African American, made my call and sat at the bar. A burly middle-aged man headed toward me with a glass of beer, which he promptly poured over my head.

"I had learned how to box as a very young man and had considerable boxing experience. But march organizers had insisted on non-violence.

"I exited the bar to a chorus of laughter".




Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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