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Russell Williams

August 24, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • Russell Williams of Hagerstown recalls where he stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in a photo printed in the September 3, 1963 issue of Life magazine.
By Colleen McGrath / Staff Photographer

He was told not to bring a camera because police would consider them weapons.

“There were all kinds of discussions about riots,” said Russell Williams, who was a 20-year-old college student at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) in 1963.

Williams, now 70, took a bus with a group from New York to Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, to witness one of the most pivotal moments of the human-rights movement in U.S. history.

More than 200,000 people poured into the nation’s capital to take part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which culminated with the Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Williams, who is white, as were about one-third of the march attendees, said he moved to Hagerstown in 1969 to begin his 30-year teaching career for Washington County Public Schools.

A 50th anniversary observance of the march is happening in Washington through Wednesday, and included a march to the MLK Memorial on Saturday.

Among the masses in 1963, many people carried signs as they paraded toward the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on that late-August afternoon, Williams recalled.

And he was one of them, displaying a hand-made sign that read: “Higher Minimum Wages. Coverage for All Workers.”

“The Smithsonian now has the sign that I wore that day,” he said.

Before reaching Washington, Williams remembers sitting in highway backups as thousands of buses from the Northeast tried to navigate the crowded roadway system into the capital.

“There were so many buses coming down from New York and Philadelphia and Wilmington, our buses had to wait in line for awhile before we could get on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway,” he said.

After marching, Williams managed to find a spot on the crowded National Mall near some bushes to listen to the lineup of about a dozen speakers, capped off by King, who then was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Before King spoke, Williams recalled, he was one more speaker in the lineup of those scheduled to give remarks. People had no idea it would be so meaningful.

“Just by the ability of him to speak ... (King) managed to become the one speech that is memorable from the situation,” Williams said.

Williams, a past president of the local Washington County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, remembers most of the people marching that day as middle class and middle-aged.

“They had loudspeakers, a huge number of (portable toilets), special drinking fountains all over the place,” he said. “Lots of middle-aged people, some elderly people, people dressed in what was that time, standardized clothing.”

People were not hostile, and he saw no raucous behavior on the mall, Williams said. And although the full effect wouldn’t be felt until the years that followed, the day made a lasting impression on the country.

He has only a few reminders of the rally. Williams has kept a photograph of himself holding his Smithsonian-enshrined sign and a 1963 issue of Life magazine that featured the march.

“It was just a marvelous experience knowing that I didn’t know where this would go, but this huge demonstration would make it hard for the South to say blacks preferred segregation,” he said.

Although he couldn’t take his camera, Williams ended up leaving Washington that day with a mindful of visual memories that he’s cherished for the past five decades.

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