This Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington — and Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Longtime Westporter Adam Stolpen remembers it well. He was there.
As I recall, Temple Israel sent a bus or 2 of people to The March. So did several other groups. People from town were very involved in the civil right movement.
I was a teenager, and happened to be in DC with my folks for unrelated reasons. The day before the march, I wandered down from the Wardman Park Hotel to the Mall to see if there was anything I could do to help. There weren’t many white folk around working, certainly no one else 16. Everyone was friendly, and seemed genuinely pleased to have me help.
It was hot and sweaty in the still humid air, in the tents set up along the Mall. An older man who seemed to be in charge handed me a staple gun. He pointed to piles and piles of printed signs, alongside mounds of rough cut flimsy wooden stakes. He asked if I knew how to make picket signs for people to carry in the march. Seemed like a good idea, so I started working some time in the late morning.
I worked far into the night, making hundreds and hundreds of signs for the marchers to carry the next day — until a small, soft-spoken man surrounded by several other men entered the tent. He walked around shaking people’s hands, and speaking to them.
He came over to me. It must have been about 10 p.m., pitch dark, the tent illuminated by bare bulbs, and I guess I seemed tired and out of place. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing — and if my folks knew where I was.
I told him they did not know where I was, that my dad would not approve of what I was doing since he did not like black people, and if he knew I was involved with the march he’d most likely lock me in my room. He smiled sadly at me. and said it was time for me to go home and let my parents know I was okay. He said that sometimes you needed to listen even to those who disagreed with you, so long as you followed your own heart.
He said that I should do as the Bible said, and honor my father and mother — but be my own man. He said if I could not come back the next day it would be okay, as long as I kept the purpose of the march in my heart when I went home. He shook my hand, and made me propose to go home.
I did not make it back to the march the next day. As expected, my father forbid me to go, but I felt I was part of it just the same. The night before was the only time I ever met Dr. King, but I was touched by his grace and the sense of calm he projected. I was proud to have been a very small part in helping our country grow and mature.
There must be many more interesting stories Westporters can share of involvement in a movement that was not just for black Americans — but was a civil rights march that opened the way for today’s Latinos, immigrants and gays, and helped pave the road for real American equality.
Adam’s right. If you have a Westport story about that historic day 50 years ago — or if you were not a Westporter then, but are now — hit “Comments.” We want your insights (and please, use your real, full name!)