It’s the sense of unity among the crowd gathered to support equal rights and the speakers’ calls to action that’s left a lasting impression on Tucson residents who attended the 1963 March on Washington.
Fifty years after the historic event where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, residents recall what led them to the Lincoln Memorial and what they took away.
Longtime Tucson resident Betty Liggins was 32 years old when she boarded a bus from her south-side Chicago neighborhood for the rally that would become a historic event in the civil rights movement.
She was struck by the number of people, an estimated 250,000, who attended the event.
“I felt so good to see all of those people; we just, as a whole, we African-Americans don’t support one another very well, especially here,” Liggins said.
And, although she knew she was witnessing history, it was her personal interactions with the civil rights leader that changed her life.
She first met King at Chicago’s Operation Breadbasket, an organization headed by Jesse Jackson that focused on economic development in black communities. Liggins would head to the organization after her shifts at the post office.
King opened her eyes to the discrimination and violence in the South, but also to the opportunities afforded by pursuing a college education.
Liggins, a widow, was raising her 9-year-old son and knew she needed a secure job with good pay. She thought she would retire from the post office, but when King told her about a newly established federal job training program, she left the Postal Service and began studying to become a licensed practical nurse.
The 82-year-old earned three associate degrees, a bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix and a graduate degree from the University of Arizona. She retired as a clinical lecturer from the UA in 1995.
Her second husband once joked to her that when King told her to go back to school, he didn’t mean forever.
“I like to be around people who believe in themselves. That’s one of the things I liked about Dr. King’s message, it was not all about him, it was about you believing in yourself, that you can do it if you stay in school and get that education you could do anything,” Liggins said.
Tucson resident Bonnie Walker-Worthman, grew up in Gary, Ind., and remembers whenever King, who was a fraternity brother of her pastor, came to speak at her church all of the children had to sit in the front seats.
After the service, the congregation would gather behind the church to chat and have a bite to eat.
“I just thought, I’d rather be at the movies and now I think, what a heck of a childhood I had,” Walker-Worthman said. “I was face to face with somebody that’s an icon.”
It wasn’t until she got older that Walker-Worthman began to understand and appreciate the significance of King and his sermons about injustices in the south and his emphasis on the importance of voting and being respected.
When Walker-Worthman was 8 years old, she and her parents and members of their church loaded into buses to attend the march in Washington.
She didn’t quite grasp what the context or goal of the rally was, nor does she remember what any of the speakers said, but she does remember the positive energy of the masses who attended the march. She remembers people singing on the bus and groups of people dressed alike, which reminded her of family reunions when everyone would wear the same T-shirt.
“I got the impression that people were eager to go to receive something, they were eager to go receive something and it was uplifting, it was something that they were looking forward to, it was something that was gonna happen that was gonna make people happy,” Walker-Worthman said.
Attending the March on Washington was “serendipitous” for longtime Tucson resident and former state Rep. Phil Lopes.
The then 22-year-old had only been back stateside for a few weeks in the summer of 1963 after spending two years in Colombia as a Peace Corps volunteer. While living in the capital, he began to hear buzz about the March on Washington .
“Not having access to any news stories for the previous two years, all the stuff that had happened in the U.S. was news to me, so I was very intrigued by it all,” Lopes said.
He joined the crowd and walked with a group of women from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union toward the Lincoln Memorial.
He stood about 50 yards away from the podium and when King took the stage the din of the crowd faded into silence, Lopes recalled.
“When Martin Luther King made his speech, I have never been so moved by anything in my life,” Lopes said.
For the young man who was just learning about the civil rights issues, the rally was a call to action.
“It affirmed to me how serious this problem was and how hard we all had to work to try to fix it,” Lopes said. “And I went away committed to doing my part to fix it.”
And, though progress toward fulfilling King’s dream of a better, equal America has been made, the Trayvon Martin shooting is an example of the work that still needs to be done, Lopes said.
In Tucson, a higher number of African-Americans who drop out of school or are in prison are other examples of progress that has not been made.
“There’s lots and lots of distance yet to cover,” he said.
Local activist and former pastor John Fife, was in his second year in seminary in Pittsburgh when he took a bus to the D.C. march.
Fife had already been active in the civil rights movement, working to eliminate segregated and slum housing for African-Americans in Pittsburgh, and the rally gave hope that widespread change was possible.
“People were still being beaten and killed and you know it was not at all clear at that point that we could prevail, that we could get federal legislation through that would move civil rights into a national agenda at that point,” Fife said.
While the march is well-known for King’s inspiring speech it was the words of the event’s youngest speaker, John Lewis, who was then the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that resonated with Fife.
“His speech was not the rhetorical gem that Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was but his was more, we have to do more,” Fife said. “We have to act more directly because the legislation that’s being dealt with in Congress right now, does establish some civil rights and that sort of thing but people are still being attacked by police, all over the South people are still being killed because they’re trying to register voters.”
Within two years of the rally, two landmark pieces of federal legislation, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were enacted.
“Whenever you’re working for social change and justice, it’s a remarkable thing to see that kind of significant change in a short period of time and it gives you great energy to continue to work,” Fife said.