The 1963 march was a revelation for her, black and white standing together, and beyond even that, touching each other, strangers bonding across races, hand-in-hand. "I was born in 1933," she said. "That kind of thing didn't go on a lot. I'll say this, what happened the first time was a real blessing for us .... I'll never forget at the end, how we held hands like that" -- she crossed her arms, extending one hand to each side -- "and sang a song. It was so spiritual."
The Rev. Richard Cox, 79, came down from Philadelphia, where he preaches at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. He stood in the drizzle wearing his minister's collar, a large turquoise ring, and a sign that read "1963-2013 Still in Search of Justice," until the letters on the sign bled.
Florence Claggett, 62, came up to him and asked, "Were you here 50 years ago?" When he affirmed so, she exclaimed, "I was too!" At times the event felt like a bit of a reunion for strangers united by their shared role in history. Sadly, the organizers had failed to provide any ribbon or button the original marchers could wear to identify themselves to each other or to those who wanted to honor them.
Claggett, who lived in D.C., was just 13 years old at the time of the march and took a bus downtown with some friends to join it. "I had a marvelous time," she said. "I had no idea of the significance."
"It was a very scary time because of the bias against blacks and of course people were saying there'd be violence at the march," Claggett recalls. She's still here in D.C. today -- "still fighting," and trying to get statehood for the city, equal pay, quality education and access to "fresh foods in the neighborhoods."
Claggett was on the young side for a marcher, but many of her compatriots were not much older or more politically sophisticated than her back in the day. "When I came I was a novice. I really didn't understand," Merlyn Kettering, 71, of Takoma Park, Maryland, said. Raised in Ashland County, Ohio, he'd grown up in a completely white community and came to the march after being challenged and emotionally engaged by a Southern Christian Leadership Conference exercise during an ecumenical conference earlier in August 1963. At the march, "I felt the agony for the first time of a people who didn't know the same liberty and justice for all," he said, "and I began to feel that sense of urgency." From the pacifist Church of the Brethren, he was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, joining the Peace Corps after King and Bobby Kennedy were shot. He wound up stationed in Nigeria and eventually married in Jamaica, embarking on a life in a "biracial, bi-cultural relationship."
"Today was much more emotional for me because I understand now," he said. "Today was very powerful for me. When I first came I did not know that it would be."