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Harford residents recall March on Washington 50 years later

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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

The Rev. Dr. John Richardson, of Havre de Grace, was not in Washington 50 years ago; he was in northern Mississippi, part of an army of civil rights workers trying to make King's dream reality.

Richardson, now 71, was a student at Mississippi Industrial College in Holly Springs, and a student pastor with Hamilton Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in the community of Waterford, Miss., about 10 miles south of the college campus.

"Any number of the civil rights meetings were held at my church, the little church that I had," he recalled in an interview with The Aegis Tuesday.

He and fellow civil rights activists worked to register black voters in the South, took part in NAACP meetings and even participated in the 1965 march from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol in Montgomery.

Richardson experienced the March on Washington and King's "I Have a Dream" speech through television.

"I watched the whole thing on television," he said.

Richardson said he watched King deliver his speech on Aug. 28, 1963 with the dean of his college, faculty members and fellow students.

"I was pastoring the church and I could not get away at that time," he said.

Richardson grew up in Columbus, Miss.; his college was about 30 miles north of the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and he retains vivid memories of James Meredith and his effort in 1962 to be the first black student at Ole Miss.

Meredith was able to integrate the campus, but it required the protection of federal marshals and the National Guard.

Richardson watched National Guard trucks travel past his college campus "all night and all day."

"When I saw thousands of National Guard [troops] going down there to allow one guy integrate a school, I became acutely aware of the difficulty and hostility that existed," Richardson said.

He described King's speech as "very moving."

"It touched on a lot of the issues that we had faced, and we knew that there was discrimination," he said.

Richardson said that, even though the University of Mississippi had been integrated a year before King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he did not expect to be able to attend graduate school in his home state.

He noted many faculty members at Mississippi Industrial College, including the dean, had obtained their advanced degrees at out-of-state schools, and the only professions open to blacks in the South were education or the clergy.

"We talked a little bit about that," Richardson recalled. "We talked about poverty and jobs, and also about people moving ahead."

Richardson said he had had "no interaction with white folks" growing up.

"The schools were segregated, the community was segregated and that's the way it was," he said.

Richardson went on to obtain his master's degree in divinity from Princeton University in New Jersey in 1968, and then served as a pastor in poor black neighborhoods in New York City.

"I saw the poverty and the racism, even in New York City," he said.

Richardson moved to Harford County in 1975 at the beginning of his career with veterans' hospitals in the Baltimore area.

He retired in 2008.

Richardson continued his education, earning a master's in psychology from Loyola University in 1982 and his doctorate of ministry in pastoral counseling through the Graduate Theological Foundation in Indiana.

He worked to ensure he was "more than qualified" for his field, bearing in mind blacks often were turned away from jobs after being told they were not qualified.

"I did these things so I would be able to compete, and I've been placed in a position where I could compete," he said.

In his view, Richardson said, America has moved closer to achieving King's dream of racial equality, but blacks still face the same issues of poverty, unemployment and discrimination they did 50 years ago, and he feared voting rights were in jeopardy after the U.S. Supreme Court's recent move to strike portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The decision had cited the racial progress made since 1965.

"I think that evil is a reality, and I think it has a lot do with people's moral values," Richardson said. "It has a lot do with values and one of those values has to do with respect for all people."

While he was not able to attend the March on Washington in 1963, he did travel to Washington Saturday for the 50th anniversary events.

"It was quite an experience, to be there, to see the people," Richardson said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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