A March, A Dream, A Half-Century

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.

He writes:

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.

March on  Washington buttonIt 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.

Rev. Martin Luther King, the day after inspiring Adam Stolpen.

Rev. Martin Luther King, the day after inspiring Adam Stolpen.

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!)

The scene in Washington, 50 years ago this Wednesday.

The scene in Washington, 50 years ago this Wednesday.

11 responses to “A March, A Dream, A Half-Century

  1. What a powerful story, beautifully told.

    I was not in Washington but my parents made me aware of the fight for civil rights when I was very young, in part because my father, in particular, had faced anti-Semitism growing up and in the job market.

    As part of that education, we drove through the deep South when I was 8 or 9. I can still recall the separate water fountains and how, even to an 8- or 9-year-old, that seemed so fundamentally wrong and unjust.

    Adam was very fortunate to have had that encounter with Dr. King; and we as a society are very fortunate to have had Dr. King emerge as a leader at the time that he did.

  2. Beautiful and eloquent reminiscence from Adam Stolpen, Dan. Unfortunately, I was not there, but our great Vermont U.S.Senator Bernie Sanders was, and submitted this printed and video memory of the day to “Vermont Digger”. It’s worth watching and reading:

  3. Rod Serling — creator of “The Twilight Zone” — lived in Westport in the late 1950s. His daughter Anne posted this fascinating March on Washington-related story on Facebook:

    August 28th will be the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington. In a recent post, John Hightower, (who with 250,000 other people attended the 1963 march) mentioned my dad’s 1960 Twilight Zone episode “He’s Alive.” Although about neo-Nzism, his message could just as easily apply to the egregious conditions prompting the original march.

    This episode was the only one that makes no reference to “The Twilight Zone” in its closing narration and when it aired, my father and the network were flooded with hate mail.

    Tragically, Dr. King’s dream is yet to be realized and the message is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago:

    “Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare – Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami? Florida; Vincennes, Indiana; Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things we keep him alive.” Rod Serling

  4. I was too young to go (14) but had older friends who did. I was a member of SNCC, CORE and participated in the Mississippi Summer Project, standing on a corner by the Y wearing a sash and collecting donations (change!) for the cause. I was given $, also yelled at and spit on. I knew Tracy Sugarman, and my friend Jonathan Rubenstein invited me to Temple Israel where his father was the Rabbi, to hear Dr. King speak, around that time, so I was privileged to have done that. Dr. King wore his minister’s robes, and gave the sermon. It was beautiful. I also heard Fannie Lou Hamer speak (in person at another event) about being beaten and attacked by dogs, etc. It was an exhilarating, very scary and wonderful time. We have come so far, in some ways. Hope our progress continues, there is still much to do.

  5. Bobbie Herman

    I was a young married then, living in Yonkers. I really wanted to go to the March, and there were buses leaving from the center of the city.
    But my husband “wouldn’t let me go.” He was afraid there would be violence, and probably more afraid of what people would say. So, I didn’t go. We’re no longer married, and I’m a different person now. If I could go back in time, I would say “sc–w you” and get on the bus.

    By the way, I saw Dr. King speak a few months later at the Fieldston School in Riverdale, so I was in his company at one time.

    • This is directed to Bobbie Herman. Is that your maiden name and did you live in the Amalgamated Housing Project in the late 1940s?

      • Bobbie Herman

        Herman is my “maiden” namre, as well as my present name. I took it back when I was divorced, and kept it when I remarried. Sorry, but I didn’t live in the Amalgamated Housing Project in Brooklyn.

        • Thanks and my apology. Search engines are strong but not as yet mind readers, thankfully. I should have Googled your name and Westport before sending the above comment. I was carried away by the first paragraph of yours. The Bobbie I’m looking for would be a few years older than you, if still alive. The Amalgamated Housing I had in mind is the one in the Bronx just below Van Cortlandt park.

          • Bobbie Herman

            I didn’t live in the Bronx, either. And my “real” name is Barbara (not Roberta, as some people think).

  6. Ann Marie Flynn

    Our March started a few years before that when we took ‘students of color’ to Texas for a USA National track and field championship in one town and the 1960 Olympic track trials in another from Cleveland, Ohio.
    At that time is was considered more than rude to finish a conversation with “I thought the Civil War ended a 100 years ago” while talking with some southerners.
    It brings back memories of wailing sirens as we were escorted to our seperate motels, seeing an All Welcome To Eat Here sign….where we were told to stay in the car, eat off the paper plates and use the plastic ware.
    One of the motels that we had to opt for was already a bit full because of the many four legged plus creatures crawling about.
    There were many other indignities through out that trip and it was difficult for me to understand why these youngsters wanted to represent the USA at the Olympic Games while we were going through all this.
    I wonder what happened to their dream?