March on Washington 50th anniversary

Janice Grant and her husband, Woodrow, of Aberdeen, were in Washington, D.C., in August 2003 on the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The Grants, who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, came back from their honeymoon to attend the 1963 march. (Photo courtesy of Janice Grant, The Aegis / August 28, 2013)

For Aberdeen resident Janice Grant, it meant feeling like a real American for the first time.

Before the 1963 March on Washington, the longtime civil rights activist had grown up knowing there were things she could not do because she was black.

When she wanted to get her master's and doctorate degrees, for example, no programs were available in Maryland for black students.

The government, she said, paid for her to get a free education from UCLA, in California – anything to keep black students from attending white colleges.

But on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made a speech that only lasted 19 minutes but made Grant feel like maybe she belonged in the country after all.

"It was exhilarating, it was exciting and it just put so much in your spirit. It gave you hope, gave you peace, and made you feel like, 'Hey, I am an American,'" Grant said.

"It was just strange to be called an American because we were always other names, you know?" she said.

History, half a century later

Five decades have passed between the original march and the reunion march Grant attended Saturday, but to her, the spirit was just the same.

"The attitude and atmosphere, I wish I could explain it. It was just so much love and kindness and harmony," recalled the Aberdeen resident. "At the march, you didn't meet any strangers. It was like you knew them and you could just strike up a conversation. Everyone was of one mind."

There were a few differences, of course, between the original, historic march and its anniversary counterpart.

For one thing, King is no longer living. And the circumstances that had spurred King to make the famous "I Have a Dream" speech were just a little more tense.

"They were expecting 'all those black people.' They were expecting riots; they sent out the National Guard, they had everything prepared for it. I think they even had trucks to carry the bodies out," Grant said.

"[Former president] John F. Kennedy even wanted to call the march off. He felt that it would be unruly," she said.

On the eve of Aug. 28, 1963, Grant and her husband, Woodrow, were flying back to the U.S. from their honeymoon and were unsure they would even get back in time for the march.

They wanted to attend, she said, "because I am a civil rights person and I am an American and I wanted to have the same rights and privileges as all Americans, and we wanted to do it peacefully. We were never violent."

"We were there for a purpose, to really show that we wanted total participation in the American vision, that we could have good jobs, good homes, good education," Grant said.

The scene on the mall was hot and crowded, filled with people who were perspiring and tired from long trips, Grant said, but King's speech made an impact.

"He set the place on fire, so to speak. He electrified people. It was just like it happened today or yesterday," she said. "I knew that that was a speech that would never be forgotten."

On the front lines