Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks during the March on Washington.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
PULLMAN, Wash. – Fifty years ago today Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered one of history’s most memorable speeches.
The “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during the March on Washington (D.C.), had a profound impact on the course of the civil rights movement. Never before had so many people gathered in one place to denounce racism and promote equality as on this hot August day in 1963.
Famous singers, movie stars and an assortment of speakers entertained the crowd of more than 200,000 people. But for most, it was King’s speech that was the highlight.
In fact, many who were in attendance that day look back on the speech as a life-changing moment. That certainly was the case for several people, featured below, with close ties to Washington State University and Pullman:
A memorable journey
Pullman resident Elaine Zakarison hadn’t even settled into her new position as executive director of YWCA Northwest region colleges and universities when she received a call from her boss asking her to fly to Chicago, board the Freedom Train and attend the March on Washington.
As far as she knew, she was the only one from Pullman on her way to the historic event. She clearly remembers boarding the train at night; at one point the electrical system failed and her cabin became very cold.
“There wasn’t much chatter on the train because a lot of people knew they had to be well-rested for the march in the morning and needed to get some sleep,” she said. Between the cold train and her anxiety about not knowing what to expect when she arrived, Zakarison didn’t get much sleep.
In Washington, she and hundreds of others boarded buses to the National Mall. After they were dropped off, they were instructed to begin singing and marching toward the Lincoln Memorial.
Many Americans feared the march would result in rioting or violence, yet Zakarison found the crowd well behaved. Although her father Fred Yoder, a former WSU sociology professor, was concerned about her safety – she was a young mother of four – she said she didn’t experience fear.
“It was quite hot and sweaty,” she said. “There were a lot of people fanning their faces and they were eager to find a place to sit down and find out what was going to happen next.”
With what seemed like a front row seat to the podium, Zakarison listened intently to the speakers and singers. She said nothing prepared her for what she was about to hear.
“Martin Luther King’s speech was unforgettable; listening to it was as close to a major religious experience as one can get,” she said. “It’s hard to put in words because it was a life-changing experience; it was emotional and amazing. It is hard to find all the adjectives to describe how we felt at the time.”
Born an activist
Born and raised in Pullman, Zakarison learned at an early age that not all people were considered equal. As a small child, she spent time with her father in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he taught summer classes at Duke University. She remembers asking him why there were separate bathrooms for blacks and whites.
“It was shocking for us from Pullman,” she said. “We had never seen (this kind of segregation) and we didn’t understand it. My father was always teaching us.”
Yoder arrived at WSU around 1921 to teach sociology and eventually founded WSU’s sociology department before retiring in 1954. His daughter said he was always active in social movements and she followed in his footsteps. She earned a degree in sociology from WSU in 1954.
She took a job in WSU’s YWCA office largely because it was familiar. She was active in the organization throughout her years as a WSU student and liked its mission to promote social justice. She became executive director in 1960 and took on the Northwest region role a couple of years later, just days before the March on Washington.
Like so many others who participated in the march, Zakarison returned to Pullman energized and wanting to make a difference. She said she felt a little helpless – not hopeless, but just not knowing exactly what to do next.
She did know she would visit YWCA chapters at colleges and universities around the Northwest as part of her job. In her travels, she discovered students were curious about what it was like to be at the march, and she was happy to share her stories with them.
“But I wanted to move past that to what they could do as students to promote change,” she said.
Zakarison said it was student activism that shut down the Pullman campus in spring 1970. She remembers that striking students met in Bohler Gym and created a list of demands for change.
“The biggest outcome was an agreement to conduct a mandatory anti-racism workshop for all students, faculty, staff and administrators the following fall,” she said. “It was pretty amazing at the time and it was mostly the students who were leading the charge.”
She spent the next 17 years, both as a WSU administrator and national YWCA executive, conducting anti-racism workshops and teaching about white privilege.
“It was right after the march that I decided I could do something,” she said. “There were thousands of others there who were willing to work on this, and that inspired me.”
In on the planning
Not far from Zakarison during the March on Washington was Mary Ashby, who directed Pullman’s Community Childcare Center 1980-1998. She and her husband LeRoy moved to Pullman in the early 1970s where he taught U.S. history at WSU for 36 years; he earned the rank of Regents professor before retiring in 2008.
In 1963 they lived in Hyattsville, Md., where Mary taught elementary school while LeRoy attended graduate school at the University of Maryland.
Several weeks before the march, Mary said, she participated in a planning session at a local black church. She recalled discussion predicting that perhaps several dozen people might show up for the march. Mary even suggested bringing peanut butter sandwiches since most D.C. eateries refused to serve blacks.
“Then someone burst through the door with news that Martin (Luther King, Jr.) was coming to the march,” Mary said. “Suddenly, there was excited speculation that perhaps several thousand marchers would participate.”
Mary remembered marching down Pennsylvania Avenue for several blocks before finding her spot on the edge of the reflecting pool, into which she dipped her hot and tired feet. Similar to Zakarison, she never felt threatened during the event.
“The huge number of participants, confident and joyful, was reassuring,” she said. “A strong sense of solidarity, purpose and celebration set the mood.”
Down with police brutality
Helping keep the crowd orderly were many police officers and military personnel. Among them was LeRoy, a member of the D.C. Air National Guard.
At the armory the morning of the march, he said he clearly remembers feeling uneasy about the day. His commanders gave the troops extra instructions on how to effectively use their night sticks.
“Disconcerting, too, was the chatter among some of the white guardsmen about how they hoped there would be violence,” he said. “Several of them joked about how much they wanted to club some ‘bucks.’”
Once he made it to his post on Pennsylvania Avenue, any remaining fear LeRoy had disappeared. As thousands of people strolled by him, he recalled the police officer next to him listening to popular, conservative radio news commentator Paul Harvey who was reporting the March to be a “bust.”
LeRoy wasn’t in a position that enabled him to listen to the speakers or watch Martin Luther King, Jr. rally the crowd.
”My big moment occurred when a black child, perhaps age 10, looked at me as he walked past and shouted proudly, ‘Down with police brutality,’” LeRoy said. “‘Hey,’ I reassured him. ‘I’m on your side.’”
Folk dancing and a burning cross
Being on the side of equality for all didn’t come without consequences for the Ashbys. During Mary’s first year of teaching at Mataponi Elementary School in Prince George’s County, Md., a required part of the curriculum was folk dancing.
Mary wanted all her students to learn together with the white kids and black kids in the same groups. School policy strictly prohibited this and she approached some parents of the black children to see how they would feel about it. The school’s principal was furious.
“When he notified her that she would lose her job, a number of the black parents interceded on her behalf,” LeRoy said. “They contacted Juanita Mitchell, a well-known NAACP attorney in Thurgood Marshall’s famous Baltimore firm.”
Rather than firing Mary and dealing with Mitchell, the principal opted to transfer her to another school.
On another occasion Mary invited a few poor black kids to a pool party at her apartment complex. The neighbors were furious to see those kids in the pool and made threats to the Ashbys, even triggering the building’s fire alarm that evening. When law enforcement arrived, they offered no help to the Ashbys.
“Instead, they told us that we had created the problem and must live with the results,” LeRoy said. “Suddenly, we had a greater understanding of why African Americans had insisted for years that they could not look to the law for assistance.”
One evening the Ashbys invited a friend to dinner; years later he became the first black person to be elected to the state legislature from Prince George’s County. Later that evening they discovered a burning cross on their lawn.
“It was a rather spindly creation and the fire quickly brought it crashing to the ground,” LeRoy said. “Our landlord was greatly worried we were bringing trouble to the neighborhood and threatened to move us out.”
On the right side of history
In spite of experiencing many tense situations, the Ashbys were not alone in their fight for equality, as the magnitude of the March on Washington clearly showed.
“It was not some holiday parade,” LeRoy said. “It was electric with purpose and commitment.
“We felt strongly that we were indeed on the right side of history,” he said. “That the future was full of promise and that, as King said many times, the moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice.”