So he quit, took the summer gig for nothing and made a go-fer of his son, whose job would be to run messages from the press tent to the speaker's podium.

Marc Apter recalls being impressed by the diversity and serenity of the crowd. He was positively wowed when he got to stand next to Joan Baez. "I was a kid," he explains. As the day went on, he saw history.

March leaders vetted every speech before it was given that day. One of Apter's duties was to carry the final scripts to the podium. A little after 4 o'clock, someone gave him King's speech.

Only dimly sensing its importance, he lugged it up the steps, handed it to an aide, and was about to return to the tent when King began speaking.

"I heard those resonant tones and stopped," says Apter, 68. He stood a bit behind King and to one side until the speech was over.

Over the next few days, as pundits aired their views, the speech began to strike him as historic. Years later, a PR man himself, he ran press operations for the 20th and 30th anniversary marches, which drew more than 400,000 people combined.

Union of a broader base

Larry Gibson would never have skipped the rally. At 21, he was already a player on the local civil rights scene. But he was so immersed in the movement that he missed the main event.

A native of Baltimore, he was the recently elected student body president at Howard University. He was also chairman of a coalition of students lobbying Congress to get the Civil Rights Act enacted.

He had briefly met King, Malcolm X and other luminaries. He'd heard their speeches and had given plenty of his own. His goal that day was to march.

As the day began at the Mall, he says, he was amazed to see so many nonblacks — 30 percent to 40 percent, he guessed. And as he joined the throng quietly moving from the Washington Monument to the Memorial, he was surprised to find himself among marchers in military-style folded paper hats.

They were members of the United Auto Workers, a group he never imagined seeing.

"I hadn't paid much attention to the involvement of unions in the movement," he recalls. "That told me there was a broader base of support for [civil rights] legislation and improvements than I'd realized. That gave a stronger sense of hope."

The series of 12 formal speeches began in early afternoon. He'd heard many of the orators in the past and didn't expect they'd say anything surprising. To his long-lasting regret, he left.

Now a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and the author of a recent biography of Thurgood Marshall, Gibson, 71, saw King's "I Have a Dream" speech on a campus TV.

It was good, he recalls, as good as others he'd heard King give. Over time, it was singled out as a game-changer. He's still trying not to kick himself:

"If we always knew what was about to happen in life, we'd never miss a thing."

From a distance

Two stalwarts of Baltimore's civil rights scene at the time, John Roemer and Jim Griffin, missed the march altogether. But it changed them both.

Roemer, 75, the longtime executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, figured the day would be a merely symbolic exercise. He'd always favored direct action with clear results.