In his first week as a high school teacher, Harry Klugel nervously asked his principal for a day off. It was August of 1963 and Klugel wanted to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where thousands were expected to gather around the call for civil rights and economic justice in a nation torn by racism and segregation.
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Much to his surprise, the principal at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, less than a decade after being officially segregated, allowed him to go to the march because, “He knew it would be a historic day, and I was one of his history teachers.”
And a historic day it was. Over 250,000 people gathered on the Mall in Washington to demand justice and equality for all, in what turned out to be largest civil rights march in history.
After a series of speeches from clergy, union and civil rights leaders, and musical performances by artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Mahalia Jackson, the demonstration culminated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I think the crowd felt that this was a history changing kind of event. That they were involved in something that was going to be in the history books.”
That same morning, across the river in Alexandria, Virginia, Gwen Day Fuller and her family boarded a bus to head to Washington.
Fuller, an elementary school teacher who retired from Massachusetts, had grown up under the harshness of a segregated southern city, and had suffered directly the violence of racism. As a young girl she was once rushed to the hospital after being burned by a group of white men who threw firecrackers at her family.
“We had separate water fountains, separate bathrooms, separate swimming pools. We couldn’t go to the skating rink. We had to ride in the back of the bus. There was so many things that were degrading…There were moratoriums about what black people could do and couldn’t do. The schools were not equal,” she recalls.
When she heard about the march, Fuller, who was in college preparing to become an educator, knew that she would go.
“Everyone was talking about the march…Martin Luther King had gotten a wonderful name throughout the country and people were all talking about him and it was just such an honor to think that I might have an opportunity to be at arm’s length from him and to be able to hear him speak about what was going on in the country with regards to civil rights.”
As she approached the Lincoln Memorial she was struck by the huge size and festive mood of the crowd.
“We were so excited because even though there were thousands of people and people from all over the country and the world, there was such a feeling of calmness, and peace, and love…people just seemed so filled with hope and I think that’s how we were feeling too. To think that this minister was coming to speak to all of America about the problems we had had and to come up with some solutions.”
Pushing a wheelchair
David Paull, a retired teacher who now lives in Washington state, steered his pastor Rev. Wayne R. Woods, who was in a wheelchair and dying of cancer, through the crowd to get as close as he could get to the Lincoln Memorial.
“I pushed from the church all the way down 17th Street to the Mall and then up to the north side of the Memorial in a shady spot just in front of where the Vietnam Memorial Wall now stands. In spite of the extreme heat and his condition, [Woods] was exuberant beyond all words. As Dr. King delivered his speech we were all moved to tears. We knew then and there that we were all witness to, and participants in, one of the most important events in the civil rights struggle.”
Fifty years later these educators, most now in their 70s, have not retired from a life of activism and the struggle for social justice and continue to teach, march and volunteer in their communities.
They all expressed that since the March on Washington they have seen many positive changes in the nation, but there is still much to be done.
Klugel, who still teaches part time, says he is deeply disturbed by the increasing economic inequality in the nation, the push to privatize schools, the lack of immigration reform and the recent Supreme Court ruling against the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“We fought for the Voting Rights Act. It makes no sense to me, to have maybe one of the most important pieces of legislation ever written in our history be dismantled.”