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A few triumphant, historic moments

On Aug. 28, 1963, Eugene Patterson, then editor of the Atlanta Constitution, attended the March on Washington and wrote a column that we reprint today. Patterson is editor emeritus of the St. Petersburg Times.

Published August 28, 2003

WASHINGTON - The march was ended. The marble Lincoln brooded over meadows snowy white with litter and placards. In the sudden silence left by 200,000 departed people, the meaning of what had happened here slowly settled into shape. It may have been historic.

It may be that this will be marked down as the date when the civil rights movement grew up.

Two upheavals occurred here.

1. Breaking a rising national fever of shrillness and disorder, Negro demonstrators embraced a constructive discipline.

2. Rejecting a further rise of bitterness and anger, Martin Luther King defined a new purpose, expressed in bright hope through love of a country.

What this Negro maturing will mean to a nation that is much in need of both pacification and racial progress will depend on the response of the country, of course. The country saw it happen, and has been handed the challenge.

The reaction of the marching Negro multitude and its leaders was unmistakable. They were proud, awestruck and more than a little bewildered by the implications of the new vein they had struck here. It all seemed slightly accidental.

For the first time the various Negro leaders had concerted their efforts. Those efforts had been getting at ragged cross purposes.

Here, for the first time, the leaders sat down in council. They decided to show the country discipline and order, instead of making a bitter and trouble-fraught march on the Capitol to goad and anger Congress. The crowd obeyed. The council of leaders got together on the March day itself and pressured SNCC's John Lewis to temper a bitter and negative speech he had planned to make. More than preaching, they wanted progress.

But it still would have been just a large turnout of people who came and heard predictable things if Martin Luther King had not gotten carried away to spontaneity by the roars of an electrified crowd. In a few impassioned and triumphant moments below the great seated statue of Abraham Lincoln, King swept the marchers to a new vision of the Negro's destiny in America by praising and celebrating America, and lifting their eyes from the "valley of despair" to purple mountain majesties.

"I have a dream," he boomed, again and again, and each dream showed him liberty and pursuit of happiness for all races of Americans soon, from the cliffs of the Rockies to the slopes of the Alleghenies, from Stone Mountain in Georgia to the broad Mississippi. "I have a dream," he roared, weeping, and his dream stretched from sea to shining sea, and all the way from the speaker's stand at the Lincoln Memorial to the far end of a crowd that stretched to the Washington Monument.

The rapt crowd was on its feet, seeing the Negro's dream really wrapped in the red, white and blue, and the answering ovations seemed to seal a very important bond.

King has preached hope, and not despair; faith in the white man, not bitterness; identification with America, not doubt of its capacity for social justice. In this tremendously positive and upbeat moment, he found 200,000 Negro Americans had that dream too, and responded.

How the country will respond is up to its individuals. (On my way home the airliner stewardess said, "I haven't been for this civil rights stuff and I've never liked King. But I watched him on TV, and after it was over I was proud of the Negro and proud of America. I'd thought they were just going to criticize us white people. He made my country seem so beautiful I felt like I wanted to shake his hand.")

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