Residents recall ’’63 March on Washington

Staff Writer

Members of the Pilgrim Baptist Church Choir, Red Bank, perform at the Salem Baptist Church, Long Branch, during the beginning of Martin Luther Jr. week on Monday.Members of the Pilgrim Baptist Church Choir, Red Bank, perform at the Salem Baptist Church, Long Branch, during the beginning of Martin Luther Jr. week on Monday.

This award-winning story originally appeared in Greater Media Newspapers on January 16, 2004 to mark the observance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. It is republished to mark the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s “I have a dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington.“

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”

“I Have a Dream” speech delivered by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.

It was still dark when the bus left Harlem for Washington in the early morning hours of Aug. 28, 1963.

“”It was amazing because as we were leaving Harlem all the stores and businesses had signs up reading, “Gone to Washington,” recalled Catherine Darby. “It was very moving.””

Darby had traveled from Long Branch to New York to join her cousin on the bus ride to the March on Washington. On the way, the civil rights activists were heckled.

““We saw many people traveling in cars who would boo us and make signs at us. The people on the bus were telling us to ignore it.””

When the bus reached its destination, passengers were disheartened to see there were not many other buses, she said. But their disappointment was soon dispelled.

Catherine DarbyCatherine Darby

““As we were walking toward the Lincoln Memorial, we saw miles and miles of people,”” Darby recalled. ““It was so moving and so touching. We kept walking. It was wall-to-wall people. As we walked up the hill, we saw a sea of people from all over. We were moved to tears. We were embracing people we didn’t even know. There was such a feeling of togetherness and closeness. We were chanting and singing church songs and hymns. We started singing ‘“We Shall Overcome,”’ and as we moved on, many of us made a commitment that we were going to see this through and we would work and do what we could and committed ourselves to working in the community, and that’s where we’ve been ever since.

““Dr. King was a very effective speaker. His tone and his manner just made you shiver, really. Since that time, I’’ve been an outspoken person in the community.

““We all became inspired, and the trip back was very solemn. We were caught up in our feelings and we talked about the things that we would do when we got back home.

““When I came back to New Jersey, I made a commitment to myself that I would do whatever I could to make a difference,”” said Darby, a member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Guild in Long Branch.

“”At that time, segregated housing was a problem in New Jersey. You couldn’t get an apartment,” Darby said. “They’’d have vacancies and tell you there were none, and you knew good and well there were.””

Darby and other Long Branch residents formed an interracial committee whose mission was “to make a difference, make a change, in the workforce, in housing and in the school system.

““We did a lot in our own way and I like to think we made a difference,”” Darby said. “”We brought about change because we began to sit down with the powers that be. We made small progress. We made baby steps.

““We were committed and we had to do it, and had we not done it, maybe change would not have come.””

Dr. Donald WarnerDr. Donald Warner

Black Americans struggling for equal rights had a choice.

“”During those days there were many voices. You had Malcolm X, Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party, and you had King,”” explained Dr. Donald Warner. “”It was a time when people were making decisions, because the more militant groups were clearly saying the only way this country would move forward was through violence, and King was preaching nonviolence.””

The retired educator met King when he was invited to preach at Salem Baptist Church in Jenkintown, Pa., shortly before the March on Washington.

“”I recall him as very stately, even though he wasn’t large in physical stature,”” said Warner, Tinton Falls.

“”We had dinner with him after the service. Dr. King had a wonderful sense of humor, that human dimension that no one ever talks about. He was quite jovial, and that impacted me that at such a serious time in history he could find time to smile.

“”You sort of sat in awe because you knew you were in the company of greatness and you didn’’t really know exactly what to say, so I did more listening than anything else.””

Warner and a friend traveled to the March on Washington in the predawn hours to avoid incidents, and the two were there early enough to watch the first buses arrive.

“”By 11 a.m. all that was grassy knoll was filled with people,”” Warner recalled. “”It was just exciting to watch that occur.””

After speakers and celebrities rallied the huge crowd, the march began.

““We began to join arms, one with the other, and began the march to the Lincoln Memorial. Every conceivable race, color, religion was present, marching arm in arm.””

Marchers could have noticed National Guardsmen atop buildings along the route, he said, with rifles ready, watching the march.

“”After we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, we situated ourselves on the first level platform below where King was to speak.

“”People had climbed into the trees just to get a glimpse. Once he began to speak, you could hear the thunderous applause echo and reverberate. You had to be there to witness it. I’’ll never forget that sound of the echoing of the applause. It was almost a magical moment to hear him speak.

“”The themes of justice and righteousness, doing things with dignity, and the thrust of nonviolence in the midst of violence, these themes were consistent in all that he said and did.””

Years before the march, Warner had joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1951 shortly after the nation’s military services were integrated by executive order. But during boot camp, Warner found segregation was still the order of the day in South Carolina.

“”This was the first time I had seen the ‘“for colored’” signs on restroom doors,”” said the Pennsylvania native, ““and there were certain places you had to ride on trains. If you went to the drive-in movie, there was a huge wall right down the middle —– one side was white. This was the nature of things at the time.””

The armored vehicle driving along Shrewsbury Avenue in Red Bank was an affront to Stafford Thompson.

Stafford ThompsonStafford Thompson

“”We were devastated by King’s assassination. There was a disturbance in Red Bank, a couple of store windows were broken on the west side, and Middletown had sent a military vehicle here,”” Thompson recounted. ““I saw it as I was driving down Shrewsbury Avenue, and I went down to borough hall and told them, ‘’Tell those people to get that out of here.’ I was just enraged.””

Earlier, during the civil rights movement, Thompson and his young daughters led about 100 demonstrators in a peaceful march along Bridge Avenue in Red Bank.

Thompson worked to bring change to the borough’s school system, he said, and his efforts contributed to changes including adding a second black to the Board of Education and the busing of students to end school segregation.

““The town had de facto segregated schools,”” said Thompson, whose three children attended Red Bank schools. ““I went to the school board meetings and raised hell about it. I told them, ‘‘You have a segregated school’’ and I had the numbers and figures to assail the Board of Education with. To that point, nobody had raised any objection to the fact that the River Street School was predominately black and Oakland and Mechanic Street schools were predominately white. Clearly there was a racial imbalance.””

Another focus was the paucity of blacks on the borough’s police force, said Thompson, currently an attorney with a practice in Red Bank.

“”There were only three blacks on the force and we told them that needed to change. I would go to council meetings and tell them they had a segregated police force,”” said Thompson, “who recounted a particularly galling incident.

““Ray Moore was an ex-Marine who applied to join the police department but was turned down because they said he was not physically fit.””

Thompson again charged down to borough hall and ““raised hell”” and Moore was hired and eventually rose through the ranks, he said.

Prior to earning a law degree, Thompson was an engineer working at Fort Monmouth. During a routine business trip, he had to explain to his boss the reality that some restaurants refused to serve blacks. Their stop at a coffee shop resulted in integrating the restaurant in south Jersey.

““We were driving down Route 40 and I told my boss, who was a very sweet man, ‘If we go into a restaurant, they may not serve me, depending on how they are. If they ask me to leave I may leave; if they don’’t, I won’’t leave and we will be involved in a sit-in.’

“”When we got to town we went into The White Coffee Pot restaurant and sat at the counter. A woman came over and asked us what we wanted, then a guy called her over. She came back and said to us, she was really embarrassed, ‘’I’’m so sorry. I can’’t serve you.’’ It wasn’’t what she wanted.

“I said, ‘’Then we’’ll leave,’ but the owner decided to serve us, so we integrated the White Coffee Pot. There were hundreds of experiences like that.””

Thompson traveled with a contingent from Red Bank to the March on Washington and managed to get within yards of King as he spoke.

““It was a wonderful feeling of camaraderie –— blacks, whites, people from everywhere were there,”” he said.

When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Thompson traveled to Atlanta for the civil rights leader’’s funeral.

““We left early in the morning and drove to Atlanta,”” said Thompson, who joined thousands of mourners in the funeral procession that followed King’s casket as it was borne on a mule-driven farm cart.

““There was solemnity but also people seemed resolved to go back home and make sure he didn’’t die in vain,”” he said. “”That was very palpable that day.””