50 years after 'I Have a Dream,' another march on Washington

A young Henry Nicholas, now president of AFSCME District 1199C, with Dr. King.
A young Henry Nicholas, now president of AFSCME District 1199C, with Dr. King. (Courtesy 1199C Library)
Posted: August 24, 2013

Fifty years ago, when he was a 26-year-old union organizer in New York, Henry Nicholas led 5,000 hospital workers to Washington, where they would hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. grip the nation's attention with one of history's greatest speeches.

"We were one of the biggest infrastructures at the last march," he recalled this week. "I was closing in on my 27th birthday."

Now president of AFSCME District 1199C, Nicholas and more than 40 buses filled with union members and their families will return to Washington on Saturday for what organizers described as a "continuation" of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

"This march is about the soul of America," said Nicholas, who still represents unionized hospital workers. "We are headed in the wrong direction. There are greater divides now than ever before in the nation."

His words echoed those of the program for the Aug. 28, 1963, march, a copy of which he still has.

That march, the organizers said, was "conceived as an outpouring of deep feeling of millions of white and colored American citizens that the time has come for the government . . . to grant and guarantee complete equality in citizenship to the Negro minority of our population."

Saturday's "National Action to Realize the Dream March" is being organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, the National Urban League, and the NAACP.

It will draw thousands of Philadelphians and other Americans who will arrive by bus, car, and rail to draw attention to attacks on voting rights, stop-and-frisk policies, stand-your-ground laws, poverty, and high unemployment among African Americans.

Patricia A. Coulter, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Urban League, said this march was not a commemoration. It's a continuation, she said, "because the business that we started 50 years ago is not finished."

"So this march is really sort of standing on the shoulders of the progress that was made, but realizing that economic opportunity and liberty and justice for all has still to be realized," Coulter said.

In his soaring "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King predicted that the 1963 march would "go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."

That iconic gathering of more than 250,000 people was designed to advocate passage of the Civil Rights Act, which a year later outlawed most forms of racial discrimination. Speakers included John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia and 50 years ago the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; A. Phillip Randolph and other civil-rights icons; and the singers Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson.

Matthew Smith, a retired social scientist in Philadelphia's Tioga section, was a student at Benedict College in South Carolina when he attended the march.

"I was fascinated by the number of people. I had not seen that many people assembled together," said Smith, now the president of the National Action Network's Pennsylvania chapter.

He said he was eager to attend Saturday's march "to help educate this younger set of blacks, who I feel have not caught on to what the movement was about."

Lewis is again scheduled to speak, joining a list that includes Martin Luther King III, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and the families of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin.

Paula Peebles, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania chapter of the network, said the Supreme Court's decision this year to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act would be a key issue at the march.

"Our voting rights are being challenged nationwide," Peebles said. "They are being challenged right at home in Pennsylvania."

The Philadelphia resident said jobs and the disproportionate incarceration rates for African Americans were also key issues.

"Above all, in my opinion, is the issue of jobs," Peebles said. "In 1963, African American unemployment was double-digit. . . . Fifty years later, our unemployment is still in double digits."

Officials said other issues to be addressed included gun violence, immigration, and gay rights.

Nicholas said that although some lingering issues needed to be addressed, Saturday's march should also keep a forward focus.

"We need to set a new course and a new vision to help us deal with the problems that we see that were not our problems 50 years ago," he said.

In 1963, the Rev. Robert L. Polk was the only black clergyman at Riverside Church in New York City when he helped organize three busloads of mainly white attendees destined for Washington.

"They wanted to show their support for civil rights, for human rights," the 85-year-old Upper Roxborough resident said.

While in some quarters there were fears of possible riots, Polk said, "we never thought about that at all."

He recalled that his group was about three-quarters of the way back during the speeches, so it was not easy to hear, and some of the words were muffled. Polk understood the power and eloquence of King's speech better when he returned home and watched it on television.

The message of hope in 1963 has not yet translated into a "post-racial society," Polk said. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done."

He plans to attend this weekend's march.

For details on the march: http://nationalactionnetwork.net/mow/

Contact Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.