Fifty years ago, while serving as a physician in the U.S. Public Health Service, at N.I.H., I lived in an apartment in Foggy Bottom, a short walk from The Lincoln Memorial. I was able to take the morning off on the day of the “March on Washington.” As a white southerner, I had not been previously active in Civil Rights demonstrations, but had a growing sense that what the civil rights activists were trying to achieve would ultimately be in the nation’s best interest. I arrived at the area near the reflecting pool, just a few yards from the steps of the memorial, as the crowd filed in. I had a list of the expected notables, and recognized most of them as they took their places on the steps of the memorial.
As the speakers began, I was especially glad to hear Roy Wilkins, and A. Phillips Randolph. One or two of the younger speakers, I did not find as memorable, and was a little concerned that their approach could be counter- productive. Then came Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He had gotten a way through his speech when it became clear to me why he was looked on as the leader in this effort. When he spoke of the necessity for every American’s humanity to judge a person by his or her character rather his or her skin color, I was hooked. God, how that man could make a speech. Then as his voice rose like the crescendo of a symphony orchestra, I felt tears running down my cheeks. This was due, I subsequently believe, to both a feeling that I was a close-up witness to history being made, but also that something more important was going on in my mind.
Having grown-up in segregated Norfolk, Virginia, I had somehow had a feeling of embarrassment and ultimately sadness about our segregated community. My own parents, both kind and loving people, often helped very poor black members of our community, but only if they, “knew their place”. I remember riding on a crowded street car in Norfolk, sitting near the front, when an elderly and very frail black woman almost collapsed near my seat. I got up and tried to help her take my sear, but she refused. When I told my mother about this she said, “Well, she knew her place.”
I, of course, could never come close to experiencing the sadness and degradation, that most southern blacks had felt for decades, but did feel that in a way, Martin Luther King, was also freeing me, and ultimately people like my parents, from a system that reduced our humanity. I looked forward to what I then thought would be achieved in a few short years. We, white as well as black, would be free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last.