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In Their Words: March on Washington Participants Look Back on Historic Day

For the 60th anniversary of the march, attendees share their memories of the nation-changing event


spinner image march on washington in august nineteen sixty three showing marchers along the mall as seen from on the Lincoln memorial all along the reflecting pool and to the Washington monument
An estimated 250,000 marchers attended the March on Washington along the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963. The Washington Monument is in the background.
IanDagnall Computing/Alamy

It was an audacious plan: On Aug. 28, 1963, a coalition of civil rights, labor and student groups would stage a massive demonstration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Marching together to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd would demand civil rights legislation, school desegregation and protections for workers.

Black Americans had been fighting legalized segregation in the South for decades, but in recent months their nonviolent protests — and opponents’ brutal reactions to them — had brought the issue to national attention.

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The idea for the event came from longtime labor activist A. Philip Randolph, then 74. Bayard Rustin, then 51, a cofounder (along with Martin Luther King Jr.) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), became its key organizer. And an army of volunteers got to work.

In the end, it was the largest such demonstration that had ever been held. The all-day event brought an estimated 250,000 marchers to D.C., to be inspired by a raft of performers — among them Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan — and a slate of speakers. The formal program culminated in King’s epochal “I Have a Dream” speech, considered by many to be not only one of King’s finest moments but one of America’s.

Six decades later, we asked marchers to tell us their most striking memories of the event — and how its effects have rippled through to the present.

spinner image In a time when many public schools were racially segregated by law, marchers called on Congress to pass a bill that would ban the practice.
In a time when many public schools were racially segregated by law, marchers called on Congress to pass a bill that would ban the practice.
World History Archive/Alamy

The stage is set for a march

In May 1963, news footage showed police in Birmingham, Alabama, turning fire hoses on young protesters and setting attack dogs on them. In June, NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) field secretary Medgar Evers, who had helped to integrate the University of Mississippi, was assassinated by a white supremacist in Evers’ own driveway. In July, Randolph, King and other civil rights leaders formalized their plans for the march.

Courtland Cox, 82

spinner image courtland cox is pictured in this close up photo
Courtland Cox
Courtesy Courtland Cox

Now: Chair of SNCC Legacy Project

Then: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) staff member

We organized the march in about 90 days. My responsibility was to help bring people who were engaged in the demonstrations in the South to the March on Washington. That meant contacting them and helping to arrange their transportation and a number of other things that would allow them to attend, because the march was about what they were involved in. We were especially focused on Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida. I was a 22-year-old college student, and I had just come from working on a voter-registration project in the Mississippi Delta, where you could be killed for that work. So, organizing this march was not very stressful. It was exhilarating.

Norman Hill, 90

Now: Retired activist and labor leader

Then: National program director for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

I was based in New York City, and I traveled to Northern, Midwestern and upper-Southern cities to get people to attend. In every city I went to, I’d visit leaders of groups such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, make a presentation and urge them to join together to enlist marchers and raise funds to cover travel to Washington. From every city I visited, people came to the march.

Joyce A. Ladner, 79

Now: Sociologist, author and civil rights activist

Then: College student and SNCC volunteer

The segregated Mississippi I grew up in was a place of murders, beatings, arrests, jailings, home burnings and lack of voting rights. I got started in activism young: When I was 15 and my sister Dorie was 16, we helped to organize an NAACP youth council in our city of Hattiesburg.

In college in Jackson, Mississippi, I volunteered as an SNCC field secretary. That’s how I learned of the planned march. Dorie and I had both been very close to Medgar Evers. We decided to march in his honor.

It was important to us to get members of the Mississippi Black community to Washington for the march, so they could see they had support outside of the Deep South. I got involved in fundraising, doing public speaking in New York and New Jersey to raise awareness and support.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, 86

spinner image eleanor holmes norton smiles at the camera in this close up photo
Eleanor Holmens Norton
Courtesy the office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

Now: Congresswoman for the District of Columbia

Then: Law student and SNCC organizer

In the South, people had been arrested for pressing for equality. But state-by-state activities were not resulting in national change. Washington was the only place you could go if you wanted to get legislation to eradicate segregation throughout the country.

When I was at Yale Law School, I heard from Bayard Rustin that there would be a march. So, I went to New York City, to a brownstone where it was being organized. There I worked the phones. Because the march was unprecedented, the logistics were first of a kind: making sure people knew where to go, how to get buses. Calling organizations around the country to try to get people to go.

Bruce Hartford, 79

Now: Webmaster of Civil Rights Movement Archive

Then: Activist with CORE, based in Los Angeles

My parents had relocated from L.A. to Connecticut without me, and they knew convincing their 19-year-old son to leave his organizing work to spend a sleepy summer in New Haven might be difficult. I’d been fighting residential-housing segregation in the L.A. suburbs. But they managed to lure me east by saying, “You’d be able to attend the upcoming march in Washington, D.C.” So, I went.

Monte Wasch, 81

Now: Retired sales and marketing executive; cofounding member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

Then: College student and volunteer for the march organizing committee

I was in college in New York City, and I was part of a staff of students and adult organizers who had responsibility for the transportation of the marchers. We contacted all the bus companies in the Northeast and Midwest, as well as the airlines. The railroads added special trains for us.

When I met people in high school who were politically conscious, they were the people I wanted to hang out with. I recognized the similarities between antisemitism and the racism Blacks experienced. Racism, I think, generates from fear; then fear begets resentment, and resentment begets oppression.

spinner image hollywood celebrities pose on the steps before boarding an airplane for the march on washington in nineteen sixty three actors frank silvera james garner marlon brando steve cochran anthony franciosa rita moreno and harry belafonte
Hollywood celebrities — including (from left) Frank Silvera, James Garner, Marlon Brando, Steve Cochran, Anthony Franciosa, Rita Moreno and Harry Belafonte — flew to D.C. for the march.
AP Photo/Ed Widdis

Heeding the call to march

Being involved in a civil rights protest came, at the time, with significant risks. Along with the potential for violence from law enforcement ordered to disperse demonstrators, there was the potential of being marked as an agitator by present or future employers. Still, as word spread about the upcoming event, Americans from all over the country pledged to march.

Edward “Ed” T. Flanagan Jr., 80

Now: Retired U.S. Air Force veteran and defense contractor

Then: College student

My parents didn’t want me to attend a march of any kind. They didn’t want me rocking the boat. I was 20 years old and attending Howard University. In the weeks leading up to the march, there were fears about violence breaking out there, so my parents were concerned about that too. And you must remember that some considered the civil rights protests to be part of a radical movement. Participating in a march could mean losing a job, housing or worse. But I wanted to be part of something that could change America. If it took numbers, I was going to be there.

Rita Moreno, 91

Now: Actress, singer and dancer; one of only 18 people to have received Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards

Then: Member of the “celebrity delegation” to the march

On Dr. King’s behalf, Harry Belafonte invited many of us to attend. I’m guessing he felt it was important to let Dr. King and the world know there were people in Hollywood who were very serious about human rights. And, of course, everybody he invited dropped everything and said, “Absolutely.” We chartered a plane from L.A. to D.C. — Harry was on it, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, the SNCC Freedom Singers.

Louis Armmand, 79

Now: Attorney, former educator

Then: High school student and CORE volunteer

spinner image louis armmand looks at the camera in this close up photo
Louis Armmand
Courtesy Louis Armmand

Some friends and I from Staten Island read in the newspaper that there was a local chapter of CORE. We turned up at a meeting because we wanted to attend the upcoming march in D.C.

At the meeting, we found a few couples, maybe a decade older than we were, sitting around and chatting. We felt disillusioned by the lack of organization. So, we mobilized ourselves, creating a committee of teenagers to ensure we had a delegation attending on the day.

We wanted to organize a local rally the week before the march, to drum up interest. But you had to go to the local precinct to get a parade permit. As a shy 19-year-old, I couldn’t even face my favorite uncle when he came to visit on a Sunday afternoon; he would give me a dollar, and I would run upstairs. But for this, I somehow summoned the courage to ask the sergeant for the paperwork and fill it out. We held our rally, and the following week we sent five buses full of marchers to D.C.

Todd Endo, 81

Now: Retired education administrator

Then: College student

For most of the summer of 1963, I had been at the University of Michigan studying Japanese — a change from living with my parents in Maryland. I was about to start my first year of grad school at Stanford, and I was consumed with getting ready for the cross-country drive. But then I got a letter from my mother, who was planning to attend the march with the local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League [JACL].

“Dear Son,” she wrote to me. “I went through the war years, the relocation camp, with the loss of almost every civil right. ... We MUST take our place in this peaceful demonstration with over 100 other organizations because we are a visible minority and our participation would be meaningful. ... I will stand up and be counted, too. I hope you will be at my side.”

How could I say no?

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Rutha Mae Harris, 82

Now: Singer and actress, former member of the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock

Then: Member of the SNCC Freedom Singers

I was arrested three times before the march, spending 14 days in jail for nonviolent resistance to segregation. But I had a wonderful time in jail, because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I had been studying music, but I decided to pause my education to join the SNCC Freedom Singers. There were four of us, and we traveled 50,000-plus miles in nine months, covering 46 states, to fundraise and organize on behalf of the SNCC. The songs of the civil rights movement played a vital role because they kept us from being afraid. If you’re walking down the street and you see the police with billy clubs, you started singing, “Let no billy club turn me around,” “Let no policeman turn me around” and “Ain’t let nobody turn me around. We’re going to keep on walking, keep on talking, marching up to freedom land.”

spinner image charter bus passengers walk between busses towards the u s capitol during the march on washington
Buses came from all over the country and snarled traffic on the way into Washington, D.C.
AP Images

Traveling by planes, trains, buses and cars

On Aug. 27, the eve of the march, participants began to arrive in the Washington area. No one knew how many people to expect, but organizers had planned for more than 100,000 marchers.

Rita Moreno

One thing I remember from our plane ride is that my friend James Garner, who was then a very famous TV personality, was nervous about doing this. We didn’t know what the repercussions might be. He was guzzling Pepto-Bismol on the airplane, but what I love is that he came anyway.

I was nervous too. But I also thought, Well, it may just be the end of a career, but bringing attention to these injustices is more important than one person’s career. I’m a human being and a Latina, and I felt, and I still feel, an allegiance with the Black community because all of us have had a very difficult time with respect to justice.

Bruce Hartford

The night before the march, I boarded a bus from New Haven to D.C. Some media outlets were reporting that no one would show up; others warned that rioters would turn the capital upside down. Filled with apprehension, none of us could sleep. Hours passed as I lay awake at the back of the bus, before I noticed the horizon was glowing red. I thought, What the heck is this? Are we heading into fire?

The glow was from people snaking up on one side of the highway, with flares and torches. They waved signs that read “We Shall Overcome” and “We’re With You.” They’d awoken in the depth of the night to salute us because, I imagine, they couldn’t attend the main event, which fell on a Wednesday. I still choke up thinking about those flares.

Norman Hill

At about 6 a.m., I was walking on the National Mall with Courtland Cox and Bayard Rustin toward the Lincoln Memorial. We were about a quarter of a mile away. Several reporters recognized Bayard and asked him what was happening. Where were all the people? Bayard pulled out a pocket watch and a piece of paper from inside his jacket. He looked at the watch and paper, back and forth, and said to the reporters that everything was right on schedule.

What the reporters didn’t know was that the paper was blank. Like the rest of us, Bayard had no way of knowing how many people would actually show up.

Courtland Cox

When we got to the Mall, no large groups had yet arrived. Bayard turned to me and asked, “Do you think anybody is coming to this thing?” A minute or two later, we saw NAACP youth marching with their signs, and the crowds began to pour in. We later learned most marchers were delayed in arriving because the highways were clogged with people trying to get to Washington.

Thomas L. Windham, 79

spinner image thomas windham poses with his hands on a table in this close up photo
Thomas L. Windham
Glenn Asakawa/CU Heritage Center

Now: Retired psychologist, civic and civil rights activist

Then: College student and factory worker

It was the summer before my junior year in college, and I was working at a factory in Brooklyn. Most of the people there were part of the United Auto Workers Union, one of the sponsors of the march. So, the union provided transportation, and we went down on buses.

I was very proud on the ride. I was also anxious. At that time, protesters had become victims of intimidation, violence, murder. But by the time we got to the Lincoln Memorial and I saw that sea of people, all I could think was, This is purposeful.

Virginia Hammond, 83

Now: Church deacon and social justice volunteer

Then: NAACP member

I had taken a predawn bus from Philadelphia with a group of girlfriends from the NAACP. I was attending the march to stroll around, socialize and listen. I wasn’t a die-hard activist at the time, but I’ve always been an active community member — involved in my church, Girl Scouts, camp directing and my sorority.

When we got off the bus, it didn’t feel remarkable to me. I had no idea until much later that I was witnessing a century-defining moment in history.

Damon “Richard” Evans, 73

Now: Actor, singer; played Lionel on TV’s The Jeffersons and the young Alex Haley on Roots: The Next Generations

Then: Junior high school student

At 13, I was too young to do sit-ins at lunch counters. But my participation at this event, just attending and being there, was important to me. And my mother felt it was safe for me to go with my neighborhood church from Baltimore.

I came up in the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and Live From the Met on the radio. It was a white canvas, but I was beginning to see representation of Black people in the arts. And I was becoming aware that I was a young gay man. So, I was fascinated by the march, because this major event was being created and put together by Bayard Rustin, a gay Black man.

I remember the people all gathered around the Lincoln Memorial — men in shirts and ties, and women in dresses. I remember wheelchairs. Kids on the shoulders of their fathers. There was no separatism. Charlton Heston was at that march, Paul Newman, Lena Horne. It was just a rainbow coalition of all shapes, colors, identities.

Eleanor Holmes Norton

The day of the march, people kept calling our New York office for information, so I was chosen to be the last one there to answer. For that reason, I got to fly to the march. We had not been sure this march would be successful. But I could see from the window as we neared Washington that the march was going to work. We could see it in the buses coming in. And in the crowds.

spinner image march on washington this august nineteen sixty three photo shows doctor martin luther king junior giving his historic i have a dream speech on the steps of the lincoln memorial to the crowd in front of the reflecting pool
Martin Luther King’s 16-minute speech became both an inspiration and a challenge to his contemporaries and to future generations of Americans.
AFP/Getty Images

A collective call for freedom

From a stage built on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, musicians such as Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers gave performances using a gigantic sound system installed for the day. In the afternoon, the march’s official program started with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” led by opera star Marian Anderson. Speeches followed, including a tribute to Rosa Parks and other heroines of the civil rights movement, and addresses from the leaders of the AFL-CIO, the National Urban League and the NAACP. The final speech on the program would be King’s.

Rita Moreno

At the Lincoln Memorial, I was sitting very, very close to Martin Luther King. Sammy Davis Jr. was near me. We were all sitting on folding chairs. I was so taken with the glory and the majesty of the day that I didn’t even think about the danger.

Ed Flanagan

I went to the march alone after working my shift as a waiter at a country club. I had a good spot close to the stage. I could hear the speakers and supporters saying “Amen” to each other, encouraging each other. I also was glad to see about a quarter of the people attending weren’t Black — they were our allies.

Bruce Hartford

The roar of the crowd’s singing is what sticks with me. Song was the movement’s most powerful unifier; if any CORE meeting got heated, we’d finish by singing, to leave the room united.

Norman Hill

I was particularly impressed by the opening speech of A. Philip Randolph. He talked about the gathering being a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom, and I think that set the tone for the day.

Joyce Ladner

I was onstage for the speeches. What I remember most was that the speech of John Lewis, the SNCC leader who later became a congressman, was censored behind the scenes. The archbishop of Washington had received a copy ahead of time and wanted to remove some of the more inflammatory lines, like one about activists marching through the South “the way Sherman did.” John didn’t want to alter his message, but Randolph convinced him to moderate it for the good of the movement.

Eric Holder Jr., 72

Now: Attorney, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, first Black U.S. attorney general

Then: Junior high school student

I watched the march on a black-and-white TV in Queens, New York. I was 12 years old. I remember John Lewis was one of the main speakers. He was an icon. Later, I would have the honor of getting to know him. He is as close to a secular saint as I think we could have.

Clarence B. Jones, 92

Now: Lawyer, coauthor of the new memoir Last of the Lions, cofounder and director emeritus of the Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco

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Then: Lawyer, political adviser and draft speechwriter for King

I was behind Dr. King onstage as he stepped up to the microphone with prepared notes in his hand. But after he’d delivered the first seven-and-a-half paragraphs, Mahalia Jackson, who was on the platform with us, shouted, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin. Tell ’em about the dream!” I thought, Oh, Lord, those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.

spinner image clarence jones poses for a photo in this headshot
Clarence B. Jones
Courtesy Stonybrook Entertainment

Everything from Martin after that was extemporaneous. He’d used the phrase “I have a dream” in sermons and speeches at several previous public gatherings. But until the March on Washington, it never got such a response.

As I looked out at the sea of people, I was struck by the number of white people, roughly a quarter of the crowd, who were there to support our mission. Because of my experiences at previous demonstrations, I knew that a significant number of white supporters were Jewish. In fact, the speaker right before Dr. King was Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who reflected on his time in Nazi Germany by saying, “The most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

I think of what these young Jewish activists’ parents and relatives went through in the Holocaust and of what my own people’s enslaved ancestors had gone through.

Bernice A. King, 60

Now: Chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change

Then: 5-month-old infant

There’s something people may not understand about my father’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He was not delusional when he started talking about the dream — a dream that some people feel was and still is impossible, given the conditions of our world. My father was a preacher. And preachers have a tendency to lay out the case and give you hope.

So, before the “I have a dream” portion of the speech, he conveyed that we had the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but economically, Black people were still lagging behind, 100 years later. Not because of something we did, but because things were stripped from us. He’s giving you the reality, but then giving you his dream, including that his four children would live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The hope. We have to eradicate those things that still lead to racial disparities in our nation and world.

spinner image newspaper headlines from the jackson advocate the pittsburgh courier and the boston globe all showing the march on washington
The next day, newspapers prominently featured the demonstration on front pages.
The Jackson Advocate/newspapers.com; The Pittsburgh Courier/newspapers.com; The Boston Globe/newspapers.com

A ripple effect

After the marchers returned to their lives in the days, weeks, years and decades that followed, the march continued to resonate — both in marchers’ personal commitment to social justice, and in the laws and conscience of a nation.

Courtland Cox

Dr. King’s speech closed the march. After the crowd left, I remember a few dozen SNCC veterans singing “We Shall Overcome” at the Lincoln Memorial. I think that was an expression of solidarity and a way to recommit ourselves to the effort to change America. The march gave visibility to what we were doing. It was important. But I came from Mississippi to the march and returned there afterward. So, it didn’t change me personally. It just gave me more space in which to work.

Monte Wasch

After the march, I was on my way back to New York with friends, both Black and white. We staged a sit-in at a diner in Maryland known for its segregation policy. The owner called the cops, and we were ID’d, booked and fingerprinted and spent the night at the police station before the charges were dropped. That was my way of celebrating the March on Washington.

Thomas Windham

I’d say 95 percent of our factory workers in Brooklyn were Black men, but pretty much all the supervisors and foremen were white. The timekeeper was white. And I was very conscious of the distinction. So, at the march, when I had signed a pledge personally committing to “the struggle for jobs and freedom for all Americans,” that really meant something to me. It also meant something to my friends who watched the march on TV, because when I returned home to the South Bronx, everybody wanted to talk about it.

There was this sense of uplift, of pride, of hope replacing despair. It was now OK to talk about the oppression we were experiencing. Part of our cultural lexicon had been about having to get up every morning “to meet ‘the man’  ” or “to clean Miss Anne’s house.” But the talk after the march was, “Soon we won’t have to do that.”

Joyce Ladner

I went back to college in Mississippi the day after the event and continued my activism. The march was a momentary reprieve. Less than one month later, KKK members in Birmingham, Alabama, dynamited a Baptist church, killing four Black girls and injuring more than 20 other congregants. We weren’t fighting for integration. We were fighting for our lives.

Ed Flanagan

I told my parents afterward that I had attended the march, and they were OK with it, especially because I wasn’t harmed. Three years later, when I was in the military in Florida, a bunch of us wanted to go skating at a rink. I was not allowed in the facility. The march didn’t make overnight changes, but it showed us what was possible.

Virginia Hammond

Nearly five years after the march, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. When I rewatched footage of King’s final speech, these words struck me: “I’ve been to the mountaintop. … I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” What anointing did that man have? What did he know that we didn’t? He knew the importance of what he was doing and how it was going to be a driving force for a multitude of people beyond him.

Louis Armmand

African Americans had been struggling for equality for centuries in one way or another. But for the people in my generation, I think the march was the difference between knowing about the struggle in an abstract way and having an opportunity to get involved personally. It activated many of us.

In the years after the march, I would go on to work in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, where I saw people who, with a third-grade education, having only picked cotton for a living, become some of the most stalwart organizers and fighters in the movement. Because there was hope.

Rita Moreno

The march completely changed my life. That’s when I became an official activist. When I saw all those people who came by bus, and who hitchhiked there, I decided, Forever and ever, I will be a person who allows myself to show what I feel in public. I’m not going to hide it anymore. I mean, winning an Oscar was thrilling and wonderful. But this day was way more important. Way more.

Video: MLK’s Daughter Revisits the March on Washington

Bernice King

You know, this was not just a march to bring people together. It was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It set the precedent for adding demands for legislation to mass demonstrations. That march was a blueprint for how you utilize mass demonstrations to bring about social change.

Eleanor Holmes Norton

Bayard Rustin was perhaps the only person in the country who could have organized that march the way he did. And it produced an extraordinary effect, because out of it came the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

I learned from the March on Washington that Congress is a responsive institution. It takes people pressing Congress to make Congress do anything. So, I very much value having been on the outside, now that I’m on the inside. The march reminds me how real change comes about.

Bruce Hartford

Before that day, I’d shied away from civil disobedience. The march was so powerful that it made me smash through the fear of losing out on a future job opportunity if I got into trouble. In the year after the march, I was arrested four times for nonviolent sit-ins to protest employment discrimination in California. I eventually moved to the South to work for Dr. King. As police attacked and tear-gassed us on the streets of Alabama and Mississippi, we would sing “We Shall Overcome,” echoing the songs and signs from that day in ’63. Journeying to D.C. showed me the true meaning of unity.

Rutha Mae Harris

Singing at the march was a wonderful experience — one I shall never, ever forget. Oh, it was indescribable.

I’m 82 now, and I’m still singing. I still tell people I was part of the movement. I can say that whatever freedom I have, I got myself. No one had to do it for me.

Todd Endo

I was, by far, the youngest person in the JACL delegation at the march. My mother was 49 at the time, and most participants were nisei like her — the children of Japanese immigrants.

I think that was my mother’s first big step in taking a visible and outspoken stance in the civil rights movement. Afterward she became much more active, and she inspired me to become more active too. I marched in Selma in 1965, and I’ve continued to work for social justice. Today five generations of Endos have participated in civil rights causes. When my mother joined the March on Washington, she found her voice, and she created a family tradition of striving for justice and equality for all Americans.

Robert Raben, 59

Now: President of the Washington, D.C.–based consulting firm the Raben Group, founder of the March on Washington Film Festival

Then: In utero

I wasn’t born until a few months after the march, but it has affected my life. Years ago when I was in Montgomery, Alabama, I met a woman who’d been an usher at Dr. King’s church. Our conversation got me thinking about how so much of our history is told through the generals, the leaders. I wondered, What if history were told through the foot soldiers — the people who risked their jobs to vote, or who walked for 381 days during a bus boycott, or who made thousands of box lunches and planned transportation for the March on Washington?

So, when I came home to D.C., a friend and I decided to create a documentary film festival about people like that: men and women who aren’t famous but who helped change a nation. We called it the March on Washington Film Festival, and we have done it every year for the past 10 years.

The festival is now online, and people everywhere can access it. AARP is a sponsor. The powerful questions these films raise are the same ones as for anybody who has been marginalized by race, gender or sexual identity: Who tells your story, what is that story, and are you in control over that?

Eric Holder

Watching the march on TV helped form my view of the world. It shaped my career decisions, especially the work I’ve done on voting rights. It made me believe in the value of protest and gave me a sense that if people came together, they could accomplish big things.

For sure, we’ve hardly reached the place we ought to be all these years later, but things are fundamentally different now than they were then, because of the commitment and courage of the people who organized and marched — John Lewis and so many others.

John Lewis could point to any number of things to show that his hard work as an activist and congressman had been meaningful. But at least one of them was that they made it possible for someone like me to become the U.S. attorney general. On my last day in office, in 2015, he came by and told me, “I’ve admired the work you’ve done.” And he hugged me and started crying. I cried too.

Damon Evans

Today we are still fighting for some of the same things. We still have not reached “there.” But I am so grateful that at such a young age, I could see people of different backgrounds and beliefs come together for one cause: equality for everybody. 

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