A March of Hope

by Henry Swain

The recent passing of Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks brings to mind our bus trip from Indiana to Washington in the early sixties.

Two charter buses were parked against the curb in front of the Walker Theater on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis. It was early morning on a warm August day in 1963. My wife Mardi had driven us from Nashville to board the buses. I, along with Reverend Henry Oakes, pastor of the Nashville Methodist church, and my father-in-law retired Reverend Alfred Coman, were to be the only three from Brown County that I know of who were to become a part of civil rights protest known as “The March on Washington.”

After getting seated we introduced ourselves to those near us. Black passengers comprised about three-fourths of our bus load. I had lived comfortably with blacks during the four years I had spent in labor camps for conscientious objectors during World War II. I had, however, experienced little socializing with blacks since that time.

There was awkwardness in our early conversations with the black passengers. Reverend Coman was much more at ease because of his long experience as a pastor and champion of minorities and the oppressed. One could sense, however, an instinctive distrust of our commitment to help end segregation. They knew from their experience that we could in no way relate to the generations of servitude and discrimination they had endured.

Our first encounter with race prejudice during the trip was in Ohio. The driver made lunch restaurant stops for our mixed race passengers, but was turned away twice. On the third stop a restaurant accepted our patronage.

We arrived in Washington the next morning around 9:30. I had never seen so many busses. The streets surrounding the long pool between the Capital and the Lincoln Memorial were parked solid with busses.

We joined the throngs of marchers who were making their way to the Lincoln Memorial steps where a podium had been set up. Television crews were stationed atop elevated towers on either side. The gathering crowd was in a festive mood and sang over and over “We shall overcome” as they joined with others already filling the sidewalks that bordered the reflecting pool.

The speeches began around noon to a crowd that filled the sides of the reflecting pool for most of its length. The protest crowd of over 100,000 was the largest ever assembled there up to that time. Our walk ended at the base of the steps near the television crew tower with a close view of the participants.

I became tired standing so long in the large crowd so I gave up my choice position to find a spot on the lawn beside the Memorial to lie down for a rest. I listened to Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech prone on the grass while watching the descending low-flying planes approach the Washington airport across the Potomac.

I made the pilgrimage to join this march because I sensed the event might become a defining moment in the great social change that was happening in our country. I wanted to be a part of it. I felt that my participation might be an example for my children, and that it could inspire them to a more sensitive awareness of great social changes that are certain to come in their future that would significantly affect their lives.

I believe all who attended this march came with an intuitive uneasiness. In other smaller protest assemblies and marches the public mood had often turned ugly and violent. One could sense as the crowd gathered that this protest was going to be benign. Large crowds carry their own unique destiny and momentum. This crowd was determined, friendly, and optimistic that the tide of prejudice was beginning to ebb.

The poetry and significance of Dr. King’s speech that day is embedded in my consciousness as clearly as the day I experienced it. The music of his delivery seemed inspired by the energy of the crowd.

The content of his speech seemed to originate from within him and simultaneously from the assembled crowd. It was as though for this brief interlude the speaker and the audience had become one. It is from moments like this that the shifts in the tides of history occur. I have been ever grateful to have been a witness to it. From my resting spot on the grassy knoll, I looked up into the blue sky of hope.