When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s turn to speak came at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it was near the end of a long program on a hot August day featuring addresses by civil rights leaders and performances by musicians.
Omahans Robert Armstrong and Dan Goodwin were among the estimated quarter of a million people gathered 50 years ago on the National Mall for the historic event. As young black men active in the civil rights movement they went to show solidarity for the cause of equality. Each was a military veteran and family man. Each had felt the sting of racism and gotten busy confronting it.
Armstrong had been a member of the NAACP Youth Council in his native St. Joseph, Mo., where he participated in demonstrations. He led the integration of a movie theater in his hometown. By 1963 Omaha native Goodwin already made his Goodwin's Spencer Street Barber Shop a haven for political discourse. It's where Ernie Chambers held court en route to winning election to the Nebraska Legislature. Goodwin was involved in the social action group 4CL and its efforts to combat discrimination. Goodiwin helped organize a local speaking appearance by Omaha native Malcolm X the next year and his shop played a prominent role in the 1968 race documentary A Time for Burning.
At the time of the march Armstrong was teaching high school with his wife Edwardene in east Texas. The couple moved to Omaha a year later. She embarked on a teaching career with the Omaha Public Schools, whose quota of black male teachers denied him getting on there. He broke barriers as the first black professional to work at Mutual of Omaha's home office and went on to a city government career, eventually heading the Omaha Housing Authority.
He attended the 1963 march to honor his late father, an AFL-CIO field representative. The union co-organized the march. In 1960 the family home hosted AFL-CIO titan Walter Reuther, other labor leaders and King. Mere months before the '63 march Armstrong's father, who was slated to attend, was killed in an automobile accident and his son felt compelled to go in his place.
Goodwin says he attended the march because "I felt I needed to be involved…" He shared the expectations of Armstrong and others that it would foster change. "We hoped it would bring people together. Of course we needed more than a feel good moment."
Despite oppressive heat that summer day the crowds were larger than anticipated and none of the predicted disturbances occurred. Neither Armstrong nor Goodwin had ever seen that many folks assembled at one time. They couldn't get anywhere close to the Lincoln Memorial, where the presenters were, and the sound from the speakers wasn't always clear but both men were struck by the prevailing calm mood.
"The atmosphere was tremendous, it was awesome," recalls Goodwin. "In a word what I saw was unity. People felt for the day or for that period of time empowered. It made you feel like some things were really going to change."
Armstrong remembers "the sense of purpose of people knowing why they were there – the fight for freedom, integration," adding, "We had no idea of the magnitude of the people that were going to be there. That was overwhelming, seeing all the people from so many different places."
Before King came on civil rights stalwarts Reuther, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins spoke. Artists Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson performed. As the program drew on the crowd grew a bit restless, anxious to get out of the sun. That changed when King launched into what became known as the "I Have a Dream" speech.
"About three minutes into it you realized this is a different kind of speech," says Armstrong. "You could hear the attention go back to the podium. When he got to the point about the blank check ("In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check.") people really got into listening to what he was saying. From that point all attention was on him.
"When people talk about Dr. King's speech they concentrate on the 'I Have a Dream' portion because that's what people wanted to hear. But they seem to have forgotten he also talked about accountability and responsibility…We saw his speech as a call to action."
It was the culmination of a black pride-filled gathering.
"I felt like it was our day," says Goodwin. "I just felt like we really had something going on."
Armstrong says, "You felt good about the day, the day had gone well. We'd heard a great speech and we hoped the nation would rally to offer more freedom, jobs, integration." Back home, pragmatic reality set in that "the discrimination you faced yesterday" was still there.
"People went back and fought for the things they talked about that day. It still took a lot of work by a lot of people in different locations in different ways to make these things happen."
Goodwin saw the march as a positive thing that ushered in major civil rights protections but he says the dream MLK and others envisioned is far from being fulfilled.
"I feel a strong sense of disappointment about the way things are today. Racism is hot and heavy in this country."
Both Goodwin and Armstrong returned to the site of the '63 march for more recent history-making occasions. In 1995 Goodwin bused into D.C. for the Million Man March and in 2009 Armstrong and his wife joined other area residents on a bus trip to the Obama inauguration.
Armstrong says Obama's swearing in as the nation's first black president "was a much happier occasion than the March on Washington," adding, "The inauguration was a celebration – the march was a plea for justice." Goodwin feels Obama's presidency has been rendered more symbolic than anything by partisan politics.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.