Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the historic march on Washington, in which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream Speech.” The march drew thousands of people from all over the country. One was an aspiring attorney from Charlotte named Charles Jones. He was attending law school at Howard University after graduating from Johnson C. Smith University. Jones helped organize the march as part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He spoke to us about the experience.
Jones: I looked around and saw so many people. I had never seen that many people. I said “Oh my God.” My spirit just began to lift and lift and lift, and I was awed at that moment at what was happening.
Terry: Your story is part of a collection of stories about the march from Johnson C Smith University alumni. And you write in yours that there was concern about what message you wanted to send to President Kennedy, specifically about the Public Accommodations Act and the Voting Rights Act, which were before Congress. What concern was there about the message that you wanted to send?
Jones: That at that moment there would be no real leadership and Congress would avoid making those kinds of decisions in 1963 that we had been insisting on. Congress had been very reluctant. Please appreciate that many folks at this point were afraid of exerting any kind of leadership. The Kennedys were right in the midst of the pressure to make changes, but not quite sure how to do it. So I was concerned that without the march there would be this quandary of people just hesitating and waiting. But we were not going to slow up. We were going to continue to pressure.
Terry: Did you sense that during this march and during the speech you were witnessing history?
Jones: There was a moment.
Terry: What was that moment?
Jones: When Martin finally resolved how he was going to say what he was going to say, because everybody who was speaking was fine-tuning their speech because this was a new experience for everybody. And Martin hadn’t finished his. When Mahalia Jackson finished singing and said “talk about the dream Martin, talk about the dream,” his body just [relaxed] and he morphed into that eloquent space, and Martin had the power of organizing words in a sermon and “I have a dream.” And at that point I knew, brother. It wasn’t a question of believing. I knew things were going to change.
Terry: How did it make you feel?
Jones: It made me feel very peaceful, very proud that I was an integral part of everything that went into before that moment of facilitating that huge march. So I felt like a God’s child, bro.
Terry: Has being at the march affected your life? Actually being there in the moment?
Jones: Yeah. It slowly began to change how the country as a broad entity thought about what we were saying and thought about the whole concept of the beloved community where all of us black, white, Jews, gentiles, of every race and culture and creed live together in harmony and took care of one another. So the impact was that I could exhale and say “well, we did it didn’t we?” As every human society evolves, we learn to adapt. Some of us don’t want to adapt, but circumstances change and are required to adapt. So, we have come a long, long, long way. But as my grandma would tell me “Boy, we ain’t where we’re going yet. But thank God we ain’t where we been!”
Terry: Charles Jones, thank you for sharing the memories.
Jones: Thank you, my brother. You be blessed and all in your household.
Other JCSU alumni recall the march.