By PAUL KUNTZLER
On Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963, I participated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” My partner, Stephen Brent Miller, and I were both 21 and living on Capitol Hill. Stephen had gone to work that morning in the Capitol Building where he was on the staff of House Appropriations Committee.
Because of a fear that there might be riots, President John F. Kennedy declared a state of virtual martial law. My office near Dupont Circle was closed that day.
Washington in 1963 was a different city from what it is today. Racism and segregation were a part of daily life. As difficult as it is now to believe, the staff of the House Appropriations Committee consisted of 22 white males. Further, Stephen was attending the Stenotype Institute of Washington to learn to become a stenotype court reporter. Only whites were permitted to attend the Institute, as was the case with all of Washington’s business schools.
After moving to Washington from Michigan in late December 1961, I landed my first job in the proofing department of Union Trust Company, a downtown bank. I got my job interview through an Arlington employment agency that had an agreement that they would send only white applicants.
During my months at Union Trust, I befriended a young woman who had an African-American boyfriend. All of my colleagues expressed their disapproval that her boyfriend was black.
In early January 1962, I began classes at the American Institute of Banking in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. My instructor for my first class was a middle-aged white male. After introducing himself, he said the Washington Post was a “communist newspaper.” He then went on to make a racial joke.
In 1963, I was on the board of directors of the Mattachine Society of Washington, the District’s first gay-rights group. Frank Kamany was its president. Frank went to the march that day with six others. Had I known, I would have gone with him.
That Wednesday morning, I took a D.C. Transit bus to the Washington Monument grounds where civil-rights organizations, church groups and labor unions were gathering. The weather was sunny with the temperature in the 80s. I bought the march button: “MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS & FREEDOM, August 28, 1963.” People came on 2,000 buses, 21 chartered trains and 10 chartered airplanes. I thought that about 25 percent of the marchers were white.
Because my father worked for Chrysler Corporation in Detroit and had been a member of the United Auto Workers, I marched with the UAW down Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial.
That afternoon, I was halfway down on the left-hand side of the Reflecting Pool underneath the trees near the World War II temporary buildings where there were soldiers.
All three networks televised the program live from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Bayard Rustin, who was openly gay, was the march organizer. Among the actors present were Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier.
Peter, Paul and Mary sang, “If I had a Hammer” and opera great Marian Anderson performed, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson sang, “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.”
The most emotional moment for me was when people joined their hands together and swayed singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
Then Rev. King delivered his great “I Have a Dream” speech. King linked his language to Lincoln’s language in the Gettysburg Address. King dreamed about his children being judged based on character, not on color. He dreamed of the day when the offspring of slaves and the offspring of their owners might enjoy each other’s company.
The march was the largest gathering in Washington since General Ulysses S. Grant marched with his armies after the Civil War.
The media consensus then was that 210,000 had participated. Many had come from communities around the country. They went back to those communities with an inspired message that helped to bring about change in their hometowns.
President Kennedy welcomed the march leaders to the White House late that afternoon. JFK was relieved that the march was a success. When he greeted them, Kennedy said, “I have a dream.”
Paul Kuntzler is a longtime LGBT rights advocate based in Washington.