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'The Most Remarkable Crowd': Two Washingtonians Remember 1963 March

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Wilbur Wright, 80, participated in the 1963 March on Washington.
WAMU/Emily Berman
Wilbur Wright, 80, participated in the 1963 March on Washington.

Thousands of people are gathering this morning on the National Mall for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Back on August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people amassed at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to push for jobs, freedom and the equal treatment of African Americans. Among those were two Washingtonians who who found themselves a part of that historic day.

On that morning 50 years ago, 30-year-old Wilbur Wright got up, quickly ate a piece of toast, and headed from his home in Shepherd Park to Union Station. The train from New York was arriving at 7:30, and he wanted to be there early.

"I went inside and walked around and looked for him. I had never met him before but i knew what he looked like. He's a tall, distinguished and distinctive looking man," he says.

Wright was involved in the D.C. chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, and had volunteered to escort Asa Phillip Randolph around the city.

"Randolph was the president of the sleeping car porters union. It was the only organized labor union of African Americans. He started organizing them as early as the 20s and had suffered a great deal of abuse, but they eventually won the right to bargain," he explains.

Randolph had originally planned to organize a March on Washington back in 1941.

"He had never given up on the idea, so when there was this recrudescence of civil rights and labor rights, he reproposed that. And Martin Luther King picked up on it," says Wright.

And so, after more than 20 years in the works, on the day the march would actually happen, Randolph made sure to arrive in D.C. a few hours early, where Wright met him.

"I escorted him to my car, and he had all this spare time on his hands, and raised the question to me. He asked, 'How could we pass the time? What are we going to do with all this time?' I volunteered the possibility of going to my house, and we could just relax, and thinking we could sit down and talk," says Wright.

Randolph accepted the offer, and so they headed uptown to Wright’s house.

"When Mr. Randolph and I arrived at my house, my wife, she was surprised to see one of the speakers. I think she asked if he was hungry and he had a brief snack before he went upstairs and took a nap on the bed in my daughters room," recounts Wright, laughing.

'The Most Remarkable Crowd'
While Randolph rested, Washingtonians all over the city were making their way downtown, including 17-year-old Irma Salley and her sister DeVonne.

"My mom admonished us, 'You guys stick together.' We walked all the way downtown to 14th and Constitution Avenue," she says.

They wore capris and t-shirts, and carried a brown bag lunch. It was clear, Salley recalls, who was from Washington by how formally they dressed in the August heat.

"The women, they came in their going to church attire. Some even had on stockings. But as the afternoon wore, i saw these women taking off their stockings and soaking... sticking their feet in the Reflecting Pool by the Lincoln Memorial," she recalls.

"We saw so many people. We were surrounded by people, it was like wall to wall people. It never dawned on me that there'd be as many white people... I was thinking this is really wonderful that white people feel they want to help us in this struggle," she says.

"It was really the most remarkable crowd of people I had ever seen and have ever seen."

'The Wisdom And Experience Of The Leadership Prevailed'
Wilbur Wright made his way toward the Lincoln Memorial after dropping Randolph off at a meeting with other march leaders. Wright was too far away to see the speakers’ faces, but the amplification was perfect and the crowd was quiet.

"I had thought there'd be a series of speeches, and that it would be a militant program, that the speakers would take a stance of demands on the administration and on the Congress. I was more than astonished when Dr. King started speaking about 'I have a dream'… I thought this isn't what I had in mind. I have a demand, I have a program, I have expections... not a dream," he says.

It wasn’t what he was expecting to hear, Wright says, but looking back now, 50 years later, it did work.

"Dr. King's speech presented not an angry black man, but a man of philosophy and hope and dreams. I was younger and more inclined to press harder. The wisdom and experience of the leadership prevailed. And in a sense, the dream that Martin Luther King was talking about, a preview was there before him that day," he says.

And now, at 80 years old, Wright concedes that Dr. King sure knew what he was doing.

[Music: "Campus Walk" by Dustin O'Halloran from Like Crazy: Original Motion Picture Score]

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