On this date fifty years ago, over a quarter million people gathered in our nation's capital for a civil rights demonstration.
That day is largely remembered for Rev. Martin Luther King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. Less well known are the logistics it took to pull off this protest, and the climate in a country trying to come to grips with issues of job discrimination and voting equality. David C. Barnett of member station WCPN in Cleveland brings us an Ohio perspective on the March on Washington… and the man behind it.
Clarence Bozeman of Maple Heights spent his career in public education. Back in 1963 he was brand new to teaching, in rural Alabama, when the news came that Rev. Martin Luther King was planning a massive civil rights demonstration in Washington DC. Bozeman heard many negative comments --- from both blacks and whites --- in the small town where he worked. King was branded as a rabble rouser.
CLARENCE BOZEMAN: Most of them were like, “You don’t need to go to Washington. I don’t see nothing to demonstrate about.” And the superintendent where I was, said, if anybody took off to go to Washington, he would fire them.
Such sentiments didn’t square with the man Bozeman had known as the head of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist church.
CLARENCE BOZEMAN: He was my minister, I had heard him preach a number of times.
DCB: But, Bozeman needed to keep his job, so he kept quiet as he watched plans for the March unfold. Meanwhile, 800 miles north, in Cleveland, things were buzzing in the offices of the Cleveland Press. Ernest Holsendolph was one of three African American reporters working for the Press back then, and he says his editors were intrigued by reports that thousands of people would be descending on Washington for the demonstration.
ERNEST HOLSENDOLPH: In their minds, the big story would be: All of these people came there and a riot broke out and all kinds of people were hurt and killed, and we were there to cover it.
So, the young Community Pages reporter was sent to follow the fortunes of a local contingent of demonstrators heading to the nation’s capital.
ERNEST HOLSENDOLPH: We had three buses, and we gathered at Karamu House, at 89th and Quincy, which was a familiar place because that was where I grew-up. We left in the evening, so that we arrived in the morning in time for the full day’s events.
Mark Gottsegen of Chagrin Falls was a white teenager, traveling on a different Washington-bound bus that took off from his hometown of Bedford Hills, New York. The product of a liberal, working-class family, he says it was a “no-brainer” to join the March.
MARK GOTTSEGEN:We were made aware of the Civil Rights movement through press reports - we heard all about the protests and the hosings and the beatings. We raised enough money to hire two buses. I think we carried a toothbrush, and a fresh shirt.
After the overnight trip, buses from across the country slowly converged on Washington.
MARK GOTTSEGEN: The traffic was everywhere, it was tough. I remember looking out the window, and seeing a sea of people in cars, wondering how we would ever get through there.
Ernie Holsendolph says it wasn’t the riotous scene that his editors had anticipated.
ERNEST HOLSENDOLPH: A lot of kids skinny dipping in the Reflecting Pool, it was very homey, very peaceful and very friendly. Not a hint of hostility.
MARK GOTTSEGEN: And then, we met at the Mall and, I don’t know how this happened, but we got a really good spot. I was no more than 50 yards from Martin Luther King.
ERNEST HOLSENDOLPH: Needless to say, all the other speeches were blown away by King’s presence.
MARK GOTTSEGEN: I just recall that it was very hot, that when Martin Luther King spoke, it was almost complete silence. And I remember being awestruck. It was very emotional.
Clarence Bozeman’s career as a teacher took him from rural Montgomery to Northeast Ohio, where he ended up as principal of Shaw High School in East Cleveland. Although retired, he still finds himself in classrooms, as an eyewitness to the realities of the segregated South, and to the man who helped break down some of those barriers.
CLARENCE BOZEMAN: As I go out on my speaking engagements, I find that many young people have no knowledge of the historical significance of the Civil Rights Movement, and Dr. King’s contributions in particular.
After his experience at the March, Press reporter Ernie Holsendolph would go on to report for the Plain Dealer, as well as the Fortune Magazine, the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But, for all the news events he has covered over the past fifty years, he still has fond memories of that first big story on August 28th, 1963.
ERNEST HOLSENDOLPH: It was a day of days.