'I think things are comin' our way'

Twenty years later I can still see myself standing out on Park Avenue in Manhattan in what seemed like the middle of the night, flagging down a cab to an unfamiliar uptown address. A woman reporter riding alone to Harlem in predawn darkness. Yes, it was scary.

But the ''what-ifs'' fled when I reached the spot where Negroes - they still called themselves that in '63 - were gathering to board buses to the nation's capital, part of a massive Aug. 28 march on Washington.

They were gentle people. Mostly working men and women. Many ministers with their flocks. They were taking this peaceful means of redressing social injustices. Rights that other Americans enjoyed were still being denied blacks a century after slavery was abolished. They wanted the right to vote in all states , access to public accommodations, a fair chance at jobs, desegregated schools, nondiscrimination on construction sites supported by federal funds.

Briefing us on the day's events, the Rev. Festus C. Carey Jr. of the Second Church (Disciples of Christ), the Bronx, our assistant bus captain, sounded the keynote: ''Our conduct,'' he said, ''is of utmost importance. . . . This is going to be a trying day for 100,000 people, perhaps 200,000. But we have an opportunity to be at our best. We are to remember at all times to conduct ourselves in a proud but humble fashion.''

In retrospect, this is what stands out to me -- the immense personal dignity of that peaceful, orderly assembly.

On arrival in Washington, our busload emerged into a mighty throng of silent marchers who let their placards voice their demands. Shoulder to shoulder this human river flowed in a seemingly endless stream down broad Constitution Avenue from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Silent, that is, until they began happily singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

By the time we reached the monument grounds, thousands already were positioned between us and the speakers on the steps of the memorial. An ocean of faces. The dark skins, the light summer clothing - it was like a mass scene in India, led by Gandhi himself, the champion of nonviolent resistance.

There was hardly a place to put one's foot. As I picked my way through the crowd, I was amazed to see infants sleeping on the grass. But this was, in a sense, a Christian pilgrimage, based on biblical promises as well as constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law. There was no pressure in this vast crowd. No pushing, shoving, rude jostling. And so no fear that even a sleeping child might be trampled.

The richly resonant opening words of the march's director, A. Philip Randolph , came loud and clear: ''We are not a pressure group. We are not a mob. We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom.''

Finding it impossible to approach the podium, I strolled alongside the reflecting pool until the crowd thinned out. Stretching out flat on my back beside the pool in the warm August sun, I let those voices roll over me.

And what voices they were! Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, and the civil rights leaders themselves -- Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League; Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and the fiery young John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. One by one they pleaded for an equal place in American society for all people, regardless of race, creed, or color.

But the voice that stirred the greatest emotion and that has reverberated the longest was that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His ''I have a dream'' speech that day became a landmark in the freedom struggle.

How soon that voice would be stilled!

Following a prayer by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, there was no triumphant roar of applause, only the echo of a solemn ''Amen.'' Then, at the same unhurried pace that had marked all the day's activities, the thousands turned quietly homeward. Two hundred thousand strong and not a single harmful incident; an extraordinary occasion, indeed.

The one face that has stayed with me through the years belonged to a little black grandmother. I could never forget the sweetness, innocence, hope, and childlike joy she expressed when she looked at me, broke into a happy little laugh, and exclaimed, ''I think things are comin' our way.''

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