Part 2 of a 3-part series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 “March on Washington” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
By Francis Walter
In 1963, I was a 31-year-old white boy from Arkansas. I was also the co-rector of an Episcopal parish, Grace Church, Van Vorst, Jersey City, N.J. Grace was thefirst of the Episcopal Church’s inner city Episcopal parishes. Membership was composed of African American families from the American South, Puerto Ricans, and a smattering of white people.
When news of The March came to Jersey City, my fellow priest John Luce suggested I go on the Grace Church bus because he had been to Selma. Whether our church rented the bus or we were simply assigned to one of the many going from New Jersey, I do not recall.
This is the time to praise, to stand in awe of the organizational power of Bayard Rustin. That was borne in every one of us as our bus joined hundreds, maybe thousands, drawn up in battle formation close to the Mall.
From the time we left our bus until we returned to Jersey City, we were both free and held in the embrace of an organizational net arranged by Bayard Rustin, giving us power through united action — power to demand long-denied national freedoms and equity which were denied then, and unfulfilled even now.
There was no regimentation, no pressure to play a role. If anyone had wanted to leave the flowing crowd, go shopping, or get to the Mall on their own, we were free to do so. There were no controllers visible with fake smiles and college degrees in crowd management herding us along while pretending not to. Nor were we instructed what to say or sing. We did receive some placards.
We walked easily, cheek by jowl. Our group ended up on the slope around the Washington Monument looking down the Reflecting Pool toward the Lincoln Memorial and the speakers’ stand in front of it. The trick was to stand or sit so as not to squash or block the view of another person. “Another person,” not a stranger. There were no strangers that day.
Here is my most lucid memory: Stepping carefully over smiling people, regretfully placing a foot on a blanket, lifting a foot high to avoid a seated person, hoping to find a space to put it down. The more difficult this became, the more respectful of each other’s dignity we became — like being in heaven with all the saints.
At the Monument we heard not a word or a song from the Lincoln Memorial. Electronics had not advanced to — what do you call ’em — Jumbo Trons? Mr. Rustin got us back to our bus. I kept a souvenir badge for years that read, “I was on the March.” In 1997, I gave the badge to two little girl cousins visiting from Germany. They ran, beaming, to their mother. I heard my name, “Frahnseeze!” as they showed the pin to their mother. Back in Sinzheim, where school children had studied about the March on Washington, my cousins proudly showed it to everyone at their school adding, “Our cousin Francis was there!”
The Rev. Francis Walter is a retired Episcopal priest. He entered seminary at the University of the South (known as Sewanee) in 1954, not long after the professors at the seminary forced the integration of the university. (When the trustees at first refused to integrate, the entire seminary faculty, except for one man, resigned.) After graduation, Walter became a fellow and tutor at General Seminary, NYC, from 1957-59. He has served churches in Alabama, Georgia and New Jersey, and was the director of the Selma Inter-Religious Project from 1965-85. Walter lives with his wife Faye in a renovated Virginia tobacco barn, reassembled with love in Sewanee, Tenn.
Read the first of article of this series here.