By Linda Deutsch, the AP’s special correspondent in Los Angeles.
Below is a first-person account I wrote on the first big story I ever covered — the ’63 March on Washington.
Through the years, when I tell people that I covered the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, they often ask: “Did you know?”
They mean did I know I was present at the making of history? Did I know I was hearing one of the greatest speeches of all time — Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech?” Did I know that the nation would change because of this day?
The answer seems to be yes. Although history is perceived in retrospect after great events I was lucky enough this week to obtain a copy of my story from Aug. 29, 1963 and the fuzzy microfilm copy shows that I knew something monumental had taken place.
Reporting on a delegation of marchers from New Jersey, I wrote: “Weary and footsore, some 1,500 area residents returned last night from the Washington March for Freedom and Jobs exhilerated with the knowledge that they had participated in what one woman described as ‘the most drynamic demonstration in the history of the Civil Rights struggle.'”
I know now that hot August day in Washington changed my life and that the massive demonstration by more than 200,000 people was just the beginning of a march toward equality among races that continues today.
Everyone who was there has a special memory. Mine is of a career-changing decision to talk my way into covering the march.
I was a teen-age summer intern at a New Jersey newspaper, the Perth Amboy Evening News. I had just completed my sophomore year at Monmouth College and, with mentoring from a journalism professor, had seized the chance to work a shift each night that began at 7 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m. I wasn’t covering big news and never saw the editors. But I had seen reports about a huge civil rights march that was coming up in Washington, D.C.
One night, at the end of my shift, I timidly left a clipping and a note for the paper’s editor, Ken Michael: “Don’t you think we should cover this?”
He called the next morning. “So you want to cover this, do you?” I said yes. He paused a moment, then said, “Well, you can go but it can’t cost us anything.” It was my first lesson in journalism economics.
I telephoned the local NAACP chapter and asked if I could go along on their bus. They were glad to accommodate me.
There had been predictions of violence, and I didn’t tell my mother I was going because I knew she would worry.
Oddly enough, I was neither worried nor nervous. I was excited to have such a great assignment and, with the confidence of youth, I knew I could handle it. But the demonstrators must have had residual fears. Washington was an armed camp that day. One young girl on our bus had been jailed for 21 days for demonstrating in Virginia.
We left before dawn in an atmosphere of excitement. There were 25 busloads from our one county and, as I would write in my story, “They were Negro and white, young and old, Jews, Catholics and Protestants, professional people as well as unemployed boarding the bus together with a single purpose, to demand the freedom and equality promised them in the constitution.”
Most of the buses, I reported, were air conditioned and comfortable. But a few school buses were pressed into use and no one complained.
“There were no thoughts of resting on the way,” said one woman I interviewed, “We were so excited that we talked and sang all the way.”
The songs they were singing were the same same as the demonstrators chanted softly as they marched. Black passengers on our bus taught the whites the lyrics to the famous songs: “We shall Overcome” and “Oh Freedom.”
Those on the bus were committed to the cause. I was the observer.
But that day, no one who was there could remain immune from the powerful emotions. I remember standing near the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument linking arms with strangers, black and white, joining in the songs, sitting on the grass and hearing hearing speeches by entertainers and civil rights leaders. (Decades later, that scene was beautifully recreated in the movie, “Forrest Gump.”)
Amid the enormous crowd, I managed to find my way to the press tent where I encountered my journalism professor accompanying a group of students. He was proud to see that I was there as a working journalist.
I remember writing my story when I got back. Without computers or cell phones, I had to scurry, but I made deadline for the afternoon paper of Aug. 29.
It was my first front-page byline and my destiny in journalism was sealed. I would never turn back and would go on to cover many more historical events over the next half century.
I covered Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, the evacuation of Vietnam on Guam and dozens of huge high profile trials from Manson to Michael Jackson. The trials of black activist Angela Davis and football hero O.J.Simpson raised issues of racism which had not disappeared from our public dialogue. And my stories on the trial of Los Angeles police officers acquitted of beating black motorist Rodney King preceded one of the worst race riots in Los Angeles history.
The AP story from Aug. 28, 1963 reported at the end of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, someone in the crowd shouted a salute to “The next President of the United States.”
What a dream that was then. A black President?
Flash forward to November, 2008. I am sitting in front of a TV set in Los Angeles watching the presidential election returns roll in, still uncertain if the dream is possible.
And then a commentator announces Barack Obama has won election as the first black President of the United States.
The memories of that day in Washington came flooding back . And I cried.