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Mary Thomas was barely out of her teens and fresh off a five-day stint in the jailhouse in Savannah, Ga., locked up because she had joined a sit-in to desegregate a hotel, when she first saw the flier advertising the bus that would take her to the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
An anonymous benefactor was offering bus rides to demonstrators free of charge. Thomas, now 70, still doesn’t know who funded her trip to Washington, D.C.
She does remember that she and a girlfriend rode all night to get there in time.
On Wednesday, Thomas held up a photo of her and her girlfriend together on the grassy knoll of the National Mall in 1963, shading their eyes as they watched the proceedings.
She was one among dozens of veterans of the original 1963 demonstration who were asked to lead a march through the streets of D.C. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the seminal moments of the civil rights movement. The march, which attracted thousands, commenced near Union Station, went past the downtown federal buildings, in front of the Capitol and finally to the Washington Monument, near where the main proceedings were set to take place in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Still have something to say
The peaceful gathering of 200,000 in 1963 helped persuade Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, later, the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The stated goals were perhaps not so clear this time, but still the marchers again felt they had something to say.
“Many things have changed, but many things have remained the same,” Thomas said. “In ’63, the goals were jobs and voting rights. We still want jobs and voting rights.”
Most vividly, Thomas remembers the vast swarms of people all around her, not being able to see anything in front of or behind her.
“This is really an out-of-body experience to know, 50 years later, I’m still here,” she added. “And many of the people who were with me are not here any longer.”
In 1963, demonstrators were greeted by the menacing presence of hundreds of law enforcement officers and National Guardsmen, with rumors flying that there would be rioting and violence. This time around, the original marchers were hailed as heroes, given maroon sashes to honor their original participation and given a place at the front of the crowd as the masses surged toward their destination.
Photographers mobbed them; an onlooker asked Cordelia Coleman, 62, for her autograph, although she was only 12 and growing up in northeast D.C. when she attended the first event.
“It helped me to develop a better sense of the struggle that African-Americans faced,” said Coleman, who now lives in the D.C. suburbs in Maryland, adding that the significance of the event sank in only years later. “I feel like I’m a part of history again.”
Although the mood Wednesday was mostly jubilant, the things that had not been accomplished weighed heavily on the demonstrators’ minds.
“Seems like we’re losing ground on everything -- the economy, justice, equality,” said Johnny Pruitt, an 83-year-old retiree from Alabama.
The marchers locked arms and sang freedom songs, “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome,” as they walked the streets. It was a 1.6-mile trek that took two hours -- no small feat for a number of people who were in their 60s and 70s -- particularly as a steady rain began to fall.
Shandra Salvi Harrington, 67, learned those songs on the way down from Roxbury, then a predominantly black neighborhood in Boston, after she was put on a bus by her parents in the middle of the night. She might not have known how important the day was back then, she said, but they did.
Harrington remembers mostly the heat and the humidity that day, and dipping her feet into the reflecting pool for relief.
“To this day, I can’t remember how I decided to go,” she says. “I’m just thrilled to be here now.”
Mamie Smith, now 66, similarly marched with her mother when she was a teenager in 1963. She remembers the crowd going quiet and still when Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium to give his “I have a dream” speech. Being there was like being at her version of the United Nations, Smith said, with people from all corners of the country and backgrounds assembled in the same place.
“It’s rejuvenating to be here 50 years later,” she said. “As you get older, you learn to appreciate that history.”
Then there were those who missed their chance the first time around and were not going to let anything stand in their way of a second chance.
“I can remember going to Woolworth’s in Austin and not being able to sit down, always having to take our food to go but not knowing why,” said Rose Brown, 63, of Austin, Texas, who limped a little as the Washington Monument came within sight.
“I march for my 31-year-old daughter, my 86-year-old mother, and my 18-year-old granddaughters,” she said. “This time, I couldn’t miss it.”