It was dawn as 1,000 quiet Trentonians, bent on demonstrating their deep commitment to civil rights for Blacks in America, waited patiently to board buses for Washington, D.C. Lost in thought or just sleepy, each eased towards a line of buses in downtown Trenton, New Jersey.
We all knew this day we would be part of something bigger than all of us; we would be bearing witness to the struggle for equal rights for all Americans. We knew we were small players in a larger tragedy that had vexed America since its founding. And so hundreds and hundreds of buses roared and coughed their way down Route 22, through the slums of Wilmington and Baltimore. and finally past the magnificent monuments on the Ellipse honoring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
As always in our flawed land, some whites had expressed fears of violence every time its citizens gathered to bolster the hopes of Black people that they would finally become full citizens.
I was there as a reporter for The Trentonian, a blue collar tabloid newspaper that gave enormous, if uncelebrated, coverage to the civil rights movement that was to reach its emotional crescendo this day, the 28th of August, 1963.
Disembarking into a sea of people, we realized immediately that this was no ordinary demonstration. This was to be a truly peaceful march — families, white and black, fathers with children on their shoulders, mothers cradling their infants.
Though I had covered numerous demonstrations and rallies, some of which turned violent, this was a solemn march of citizens peacefully seeking redress for centuries of discrimination and mistreatment. This march of 250,000 Americans that thronged the park behind the White House was more worship than war, more prayerful than raucous.
Previously I had covered the departure of James Farmer from New York with the Freedom Riders. After the buses left, an Asssociated Press reporter and I were jumped by a group of screaming northeastern racists. We were beaten, but not seriously injured. I was thankful later that I had not been on those buses whose passengers were to endure much worse treatment in Georgia.
On this more peaceful day I made my way to the roped-off foreground of the Lincoln Memorial and tried to enter to interview the celebrities and civil rights leaders milling about under the huge statute of Abraham Lincoln.
No luck until a friend inside shouted , “Bill, come on in !” Gail Buckley, there with her mother Lena Horne, the singer and civil rights activist, talked me through the tight security. Slowly I edged toward the wooden stands erected on the steps of the Memorial, and sat down close to the empty speakers’ podium.
And then I waited and waited and waited — trying to be unobtrusive, as if to imply, “I’m with them,” and blend in with the nation’s civil rights leaders. Slowly the stands filled up and the speakers began. A sea of citizens filled the expansive park, reaching from Washington to Lincoln on the banks of the Reflecting Pool.
Then came Martin Luther King, who delivered his historic speech, his words echoing across the park as they have down through history…