Witnesses to history: Elginites recall their trip to hear MLK’s ‘Dream’ speech
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org @DanaheyECN on Twitter August 27, 2013 11:26AM
This historical photo was taken by Willard Dulabaum of Elgin when he was among the throng who heard Martin Luther King Jr. give his "I have a dream" speech in Washington, D.C., on Aug 28, 50 years ago. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 29, 2013 6:07AM
ELGIN — Fifty years ago on Aug. 28, about 250,000 people descended on the nation’s capital to be part of the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs — and a date with history.
At that assembly, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, a masterpiece of rhetoric and a watershed moment for the civil rights movement.
Among those there to hear King that day were six people who now call Elgin home and who recently gathered at the Church of the Brethren on Highland Avenue to share their recollections.
Willard “Duly” Dulabaum and 44 fellow churchgoers almost didn’t make the rally.
Dulabaum was a young associate pastor at the time with a Church of the Brethren congregation from Manchester, Ind. His group was traveling by bus with members of a black congregation from Fort Wayne with which Dulabaum’s church had set up a choir exchange program.
“I recall some personal struggle about whether or not I should attend. There was controversy around, even in the church, and certainly beyond it,” Dulabaum, 76, said.
But his congregation’s head pastor, Hubert Newcomer, convinced Dulabaum of the importance of being part of the event. The Church of the Brethren had also had just put out a pamphlet, a manifesto really, that concluded, “The time is now for every member of the church to be used of God to heal the brokenness in all peoples and races whom God hath made of one blood to dwell on all the face of the earth.”
Yet, with so many people heading to Washington, booking transportation for the trek was tough, and Dulabaum recalled the cruiser they eventually found had not been inspected. As such, Dulabaum said the bus broke down for a minor repair somewhere between Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, again near Breezewood, Pa., and finally and for good near a Maryland suburb of Washington, where the mixed group waited and waited for the company to send another bus.
The group missed the gathering at the Washington Monument, then the demonstration past the White House to the Lincoln Memorial.
“I became quite concerned at the unthinkable, the possibility we would miss King speaking,” Dulabaum said.
With no one the designated point person for the trip, Dulabaum recalled taking it upon himself to walk a few blocks to a pay phone and, finding no help from the overburdened bus company, calling a local taxi company.
“I’m guessing it was in the city’s best interest to get an integrated busload of people off the street corners of a Maryland suburb,” Dulabaum said. “They sent nine cabs and a police escort, and we were taken right up to the Lincoln Memorial in a hurry.”
Jay Gibble, who was on the same bus, recalled things a little differently than Dulabaum. He believes some of those stranded got rides to the rally from friendly passers-by.
Either way, the fellow travelers all arrived safely and regrouped relatively close to where King was to speak. As luck would have it, things were running behind schedule, so the group made it on time to hear King.
“Maybe the last shall be first,” Gibble quipped.
Gibble, 81, noted apprehension about attending the event. King had been seen derisively by many white people, he recalled, and at the time, he felt his own church was “strong on service but not on social justice.”
Gibble had heard King talk before and admired that he not only spoke eloquently but acted out courageously for civil rights.
“I felt it was an important moment and that we needed to be there,” Gibble said. “Something about King’s call for justice that day was a moving thing for me.”
Demands in green
Dulabaum noted that signs had been furnished to the attendees by the rally organizers, but by the time the group arrived, he could only get one that had been discarded by others.
He used the poster board to write notes in green pen on its backside — a list of 10 demands related to economic and race matters being made that day.
“These were demands, and that was considered a pretty strong word,” Dulabaum said.
But the language of the day did not inspire the violence that political leaders and pundits of the day worried would happen.
“It was an exciting, joyful day,” recalled Nancy Gibble.
Gibble and her husband, Lamar, traveled to the rally by car. They were living in the Silver Spring/Kensington area of Maryland in 1963, where Lamar was a pastor, and had seen overt signs of racism in their community. One example was a cross being burned on the lawn of a black family who had moved into a local home.
“There was a lot of anxiety about what might happen, but the thing that will always live with me is that people were in great spirits. It was a great experience,” said Lamar, 82.
Nancy Gibble, 82, noted that the sound system was crystal clear, with the music and myriad speeches of the day bouncing off the building.
“It was a positive occasion for us. At least until we saw the letters to the editor afterward,” Nancy Gibble said.
Picking a fight
Dulabaum noted that a man at a Maryland diner tried to pick a fight with his group on the way back home but that otherwise the return trip was uneventful. However, a Realtor who had shown support for the cause wound up going out of business, Dulabaum recalled.
Housing was among the issues that brought Margaret Spivey to Washington that hot August day.
Spivey, 78, was living on Chicago’s West Side, attending college at the time and working for an urban renewal project tied to the city’s police department.
She had been to other marches in Alabama, where her mother lived. She recalled that the racism that King encountered in Chicago when he moved to the city for two months in the summer of 1966 showed troubles in the North could be every bit the equal of those in the South.
Of her trip to Washington in 1963, Spivey recalled she was inspired by a 78-year-old black woman who was on her bus.
“I figured if she could make the trip, so could I,” Spivey said.
Spivey, who now attends Second Baptist in Elgin, said she had heard King speak in public before, “but not like that ... . But it took time for us to realize the importance of that speech.”
Attending the speech also became a common bond for Spivey and Dulabaum.
In the late 1970s and in the 1980s, they were both public bus drivers working in Elgin. The topic of King came up in conversation one day.
“Maybe it was King’s birthday,” Spivey guessed. The discussion led to the two learning they had both been at the rally — future bus drivers taking buses, even.
For Howard Royer, the trip to Washington was part of his job as news director for the Elgin-based Church of the Brethren denomination’s publication the Gospel Messenger.
Royer noted that six weeks before King made his lasting speech, Church of the Brethren leaders made their pronouncement supporting the Civil Rights Movement.
The church in action
Of Aug. 28, 1963, “What I recall most is the presence of the (Christian) church there, en masse, and of religions in general,” Royer said. “They really gave support to the issues of jobs and freedom. Those like King were doing what the founding fathers had failed to do.”
The mood from Royer’s vantage point, in the midst of the crowd, “was like being at a picnic. The fear factor had left,” he said. Some were so relaxed, in fact, that Spivey captured an image of attendees dangling their bare feet in the reflecting pool of the Washington Monument, seeking relief from the sweltering heat.
Royer, 83, said King’s speech was “unforgettable, and was even then.”
In his Oct. 19, 1963, article in the Gospel Messenger, Royer wrote, “The March was an historical event occurring in the fullness of time, and for many had spiritual dimension all its own.”
He quoted Donald Shank, the pastor of the Highland Avenue congregation at the time, as saying, “We were there because we felt a compelling necessity to be there.”
Royer ended his article stating that the events of Aug. 28, 1963, “dramatically and effectively brought into global focus a monumental issue on which increasingly the destiny of the world will rest: human dignity for all men — or for none.”
“And on this issue the church cannot return to the sidelines,” Royer concluded.