'I never heard anybody talk like that'

Kenneth Collins is pictured in his home. He was an officer with D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department during the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Collins stood just behind Dr. King (and to the right) and has been featured in countless photographs from that day.
Kenneth Collins is pictured in his home. He was an officer with D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department during the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Collins stood just behind Dr. King (and to the right) and has been featured in countless photographs from that day. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Kenneth Collins knew he had a big day in store when he showed up for work Aug. 28, 1963. As an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, his job was to protect the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who planned a major speech to anchor the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Collins was prepared for violence. "Be on your toes," his sergeant had warned him.


But he wasn't prepared to be so moved by King's "I Have a Dream" speech, to be motivated to take a deeper look at race relations in the nation's capital and in his own police force, which had already been integrated.

"I had never heard anybody talk like that in my life. … This was a man that was speaking from his heart," said Collins, a white man who was 28 at the time.


That moment — King's speech, a white cop standing behind him — was captured in photographs and video clips that resurface every August. Collins said he doesn't know why he ended up posted so close to King.

"I swear, I don't know how I got there," said Collins, now a 78-year-old retiree living in Crofton with his wife, Barbara.

Collins had guarded dignitaries and attended rallies and speeches before, a routine part of the job for Washington police officers.

But none of the speeches have resonated with Collins as King's speech did.


He had seen King on TV, often surrounded by trouble, so he was prepared for problems. Security was tight at the National Mall, with the National Guard, the Army and the U.S. Park Police supplementing the Metropolitan Police. There were no days off for police officers; everyone was working.

But trouble never materialized.

"It turned out to be a very orderly, very nice ceremony," Collins said. "With all of the hundreds of thousands of people involved, there were no problems."

With no unrest in the crowd, Collins was able to listen, to soak up King's words about equality and opportunity.

The two exchanged a brief glance as King approached the microphone: "I could tell by his eyes what kind of person he was, and when he talked, I was convinced," Collins said.

It was an afternoon like no other, so inspiring that even today Collins struggles for words, at one point drawing a parallel to a Washington Redskins playoff football game — thrilling, hopeful. But then gives up.

"I can't explain it — you had to be there," he said.

The afternoon also gave Collins a chance to reflect on equality — or lack of equality — for people of different races in his hometown.

Collins had seen and read news reports about the civil rights movement, but never saw the same troubles in Washington. He remembers his high school was integrated — though there was just one African-American girl who was a student — and he had black co-workers.

Still, King's speech made Collins think again about the experiences of African-Americans in Washington. Black officers, he realized, didn't have the same promotional opportunities. They didn't always get to work the most desirable patrols.

"It gave me a different perspective on people. I realized they're just the same as me — black people and white people are the same," Collins said.

It was a full year before Collins realized he was in the background of historic photos and videos of King delivering his speech. He doesn't remember watching the news that night — after all, he had seen it all firsthand.

About a year later, on vacation in Florida, he saw a TV news report about the anniversary of the march. And there he was.

"I told everyone 'I saw myself on TV.' They said, 'Sure, you're dreaming,'" Collins said.

One of his daughters, a teacher, has used his story to teach students about the civil rights movement.

Collins' nephew, Kenny Shugars, a retired deputy U.S. marshal, shows the March on Washington picture to his criminal justice students at Georgia Regents University at the start of each semester.

Shugars and Collins always traded cop stories over the years, but it wasn't until about five years ago that Shugars learned of his uncle's brush with history when the picture was shown on TV.

"He's not one of these guys who goes out and brags. He's very humble," Shugars said.

With the 50th anniversary of the march approaching, Collins suddenly finds himself in demand for his minor role in history. It began while he was surfing a website for retired officers from the Metropolitan Police Department. There was a request from Howard University seeking to get in touch with police officers who worked that day. That led to interviews with researchers from Howard.

Then Collins read about the Foot Soldiers Memorial, to be dedicated Wednesday in Annapolis, honoring the "regular people" who participated in the March on Washington. Collins contacted organizers of the memorial, who have shared his story with anyone who would listen.

In recent weeks, he's been interviewed more times than he can remember — an odd experience for a man who has led a quiet life as a police officer, parking enforcement communications officer and court reporter. He's had two marriages, eight children and stepchildren, and nine grandchildren.

"I'm flabbergasted," Collins said. "I never thought it would lead to anything like this."

But Carl Snowden, the driving force behind the Annapolis memorial, said it's appropriate to honor regular people such as Collins who played a role in history.

"He had a view of history and didn't even know it," Snowden said. "I'm sure Kenneth Collins had no idea that the black Baptist preacher he was listening to would one day be an international icon."

Snowden hopes people will be inspired by the stories of Collins and others who attended the march. He has invited dozens to Wednesday's memorial unveiling in Annapolis.

"We want to use this occasion to say thank you to them while they're still living, that we're appreciative of the sacrifices they made," he said.