Half a century ago this Wednesday, as a bright sun climbed the sky above downtown Washington, Douglas B. Sands, then 29, stood a few hundred feet from the Lincoln Memorial and looked out over the National Mall in wonder.
It was 8:30 in the morning on Aug. 28, 1963. The long-awaited March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would not begin for 21/2 hours. People were flooding in by the thousands, gathering by the Reflecting Pool like members of an extended family assembling for a picnic.
"To see so many people of all ages and races coming together so peacefully — that was much bigger and better than any of us expected," recalls Sands, whose work on Baltimore's civil rights scene had taught him that even those inside the movement could rarely speak with a single voice.
A quarter of a million people — including 15,000 Marylanders, by one estimate — turned out to take a stand on behalf of racial justice on what would become a landmark day in American history, one that ended with a speech for the ages.
At the time, many observers feared it would end in violence, others thought it would have no effect, and no one knew how it would turn out.
To many on the Mall and to the millions who watched it on TV, the meaning of the March on Washington only became clear as the day unfolded or in the following weeks. Many felt its power on the spot, others as the months and years went by. Some who missed it swore to rededicate themselves to the movement.
The march, it is said, helped persuade Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later. Marylanders who remember it hope its lessons might yet inform our discussions of race, politics and equal rights.
For Joyce Dennison, the March on Washington meant a chance to build on the civil rights successes she'd seen after moving from her liberal hometown of Kennett Square, Pa., to still largely segregated Baltimore.
In February 1963, she was one of hundreds of college students jailed for protesting a policy that barred blacks from the Northwood Shopping Center near the Morgan State campus. The action helped force the owners to integrate.
But nothing could have prepared her for the experience of Aug. 28.
The day began when Dennison, like thousands across the region, boarded a chartered bus. The atmosphere on the bus was jubilant, she says, as strangers, black and white, sang folk and gospel songs.
And the roads were packed.
"Imagine busload after busload on I-95 and I-40, [as though they were] driving to Ocean City on Memorial Day weekend, only 500-fold," she says. "Just seeing all those people heading for the same destination was exhilarating."
The march was, too — only more so. Once you got into "that sea of people, whoever you were walking with, it was like you knew [that person] all your life," says Dennison, 71, a retired Baltimore schoolteacher. "It didn't matter what socioeconomic group, religion or ethnicity you belonged to. There was a great feeling of humanity."
By the time the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium, Dennison had found a spot at the far end of the Reflecting Pool. She found herself hoping no sniper would take aim at King. But across that distance, as the amplified sound wafted in and out, two life-giving phrases came through loud and clear: "all of God's children" and "I have a dream."
The following summer, when the Civil Rights Act became law, Dennison thought of Aug. 28, 1963 — "the first time in my life I saw a people's movement affect government policies."
Go-fer to history
At 17, Marc Apter of Annapolis had a stroke of dumb luck. He'd never been a political activist. But he still got to hear King speak from 20 feet away.
Apter's father, David, a public relations man, had worked with early leaders of the civil rights movement. As the day of the march approached, David Apter volunteered his services to organizers. But at work, his bosses declined to give him time off.