Western Pennsylvanians recall their route to the March on Washington
Fifty years ago this week, an estimated 250,000 ordinary people dressed in suits and housedresses, carrying signs demanding racial justice and full employment, transformed the 2-mile mall between the U.S. Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial into a mosaic of ethnicity.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s words from that day became part of the American fabric: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.' ”
Many of the marchers were Western Pennsylvanians who still can chart the event's influence on their lives.
“This was going to be a historical event, and I wanted to be there,” said Thelma Lovette, 97, who grew up in the Hill District and modestly says she volunteered with various organizations that worked for the rights of all people.
The YMCA on Centre Avenue that opened last year bears her name. Her family worked to influence Pittsburgh's politics.
“She was the epitome of a civil rights activist in the Hill for several generations,” said Regis Bobonis Sr. of Sewickley, a pioneering journalist.
A social worker for many years at then-Mercy Hospital, Lovette lives near Phoenix, Ariz. She was 47 when she joined several hundred others for the bus ride to Washington. She came back emboldened by the experience, she said, and devoted herself even more to working for jobs and justice.
Lovette “was the grande dame of black Pittsburgh — striking style but a steely determination,” said Pitt professor Laurence Glasco.
“She had a pedigree that made her stand out,” he said. “Her brother, Robert ‘Pappy' Williams, was the first black police magistrate in Pittsburgh and then the first black ward chairman.”
The fifth of 11 children born to Alice and Henry Williams, Lovette recently visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington and surprised children there by telling them, “I was here in 1963. … I got to see Dr. King.”Feeling of hope
Bill Strickland boarded the train to Washington as a 16-year-old Oliver High School student and came back determined to make a difference in his hometown.
“It was a great uplifting event that left you with a good feeling of hope,” said Strickland, 66, of the North Side. “While it didn't change my life, it made it more certain about what my life was going to be about.”
On the train ride home, he and his peers talked about what they had heard and what they would do next.
“I wanted to make a contribution to ‘the dream,' ” Strickland said. “I decided to go back to my neighborhood and play out my hand on the North Side.”
His Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center have evolved into a national model for education, culture and hope. Presidents tapped his expertise — for the National Endowment of the Arts and the White House Council for Community Solutions — and in 2011, Strickland won the international GOI Peace Award.
“We've been working with people to be involved for 40 years,” he said.
At age 12, Strickland had gone to the Deep South to help with voter registration. That trip brought him face-to-face with sheer poverty, profoundly affecting him.
“The FBI tracked you. … The Klan was active then,” Strickland recalled. “We had to check in every hour to let them know we were still alive.”Lifetime commitment
Sala Udin, 70, of the Hill District was 20 and attending college in New York when he joined the Staten Island NAACP Youth Council and agreed to round up 10 young people to ride a bus to the march.
“We not only filled those 10 seats, we chartered another bus,” he said.
The day led to his lifetime commitment to fight racism, poverty and oppression, he said. Following King's speech, Udin said, “I wanted to join his movement.”
Though his parents pleaded with him not to — both came to Pittsburgh from the South, his mother, a maid, and his father, a presser at a laundry — Udin went to Mississippi in 1965 to join the Freedom Democratic Party. He stayed four years, registering people to vote and working to integrate schools and lunch counters.
“Not only do people not appreciate what it was like to live in that situation, they also don't know what it was like to be in an organization whose job it was to confront and oppose that culture and to force it to change,” he said. “That was like war. Every day there was some kind of confrontation or some kind of organizing.”
Udin said he has fought bigotry in several arenas. For 13 years, he was executive director of House of the Crossroads, a drug treatment center; he helped establish Black Horizons Theater with playwrights August Wilson and Rob Penny; and he helped found a black student organization and black studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. He spent 11 years on Pittsburgh City Council, beginning in 1997.
He was arrested, beaten at times, and crushed by his son's unsolved 2005 murder, but Udin says his has been “a wonderful life, a wonderful experience, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.”Different world
The Rev. Asa Roberts remembers leaning on the stage as King delivered his iconic speech.
They were childhood friends in a small Georgia town. Even after Roberts moved to Detroit to attend seminary school, and later to a church in Aliquippa and finally New Kensington, they stayed in contact.
“He was a very good friend of mine,” said Roberts, 95, of Lower Burrell. “That's how I made it up front, because I had been talking with him and I knew he was coming.”
Roberts, pastor of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in New Kensington, helped organize a bus trip to the march for about 60 people.
Life for blacks was much different then, he said.
“We didn't have freedom like we have it now; even up North you didn't have it, but at least you could go to the same restaurant and whatnot. I'm from Georgia, and they had a fountain down there — one for white and one for colored.
“Now everything is open, and that means a lot.”Spirit of oneness
Howard Dantzler was a pre-theology student at Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1957 when he first heard King speak.
The message of nonviolent resistance struck a chord.
“I was a little more pugnacious. Somebody hits you, hit 'em back. … I admit his nonviolence was difficult for me to internalize at first,” said Dantzler, 79, of Smithfield, Fayette County.
Six years later, on his way from Uniontown to a teaching assignment at Alcorn State University in Mississippi, Dantzler landed in the middle of the March on Washington.
“There was not one incident of conflict. I'd never been in a crowd that huge,” he said. “It's like there was a spirit in the atmosphere that all the people there were a part of — a oneness.”
A retired sociology professor from Penn State-Fayette, Dantzler founded the Interfaith Assembly for Christ Church in Uniontown. He sees progress from the days when people of color had to sit in theater balconies and could not get seated in local restaurants.
“There are lots of folks still today who can't see blacks with the rights of whites,” he said. “It's better now than it was, for everyone. However, it's going to take time.”
Jan Neffke graduated in 1963 from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in community organizing and started working for the YWCA, Downtown.
When its board endorsed the March on Washington, she found herself helping to organize a Pittsburgh contingent of about 1,000 people.
“I rode the oldest train I'd ever seen,” said Neffke, of Point Breeze. “The mood going down was jubilant. Coming back, we sang all kinds of freedom songs.”
The Pittsburghers were among the first to arrive, putting them front and center, Neffke said.
“It was truly an amazing experience ... life-changing. It inspired me to get involved. I've been marching ever since.”Marching on
Some say the work begun that hot August day remains unfinished. Despite the advantage of the Internet to rally people to a cause, many people lack the urgency that carried those in 1963 to Washington.
“We're at a peculiar moment,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, a Drexel University professor and expert on social movements. “Some are openly proclaiming the end of racism, but people are on television about using the N-word.”
Many descendants of those who marched are rooted in the movement.
“For me, growing up in the civil rights environment, everything my father instilled in me has a tangible connection” with the 1963 march, said Phyllis Waller, 57, of Washington, who kept the signs her late father, Louis, carried that day.
Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writers Mary Pickels and Jodi Weigand contributed.