For the Month of August, Morning Edition and The Race Card Project are looking back at a seminal moment in civil rights history: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his iconic "I Have A Dream Speech" on Aug. 28, 1963. Approximately 250,000 people descended on the nation's capitol from all over the country for the mass demonstration.
Through The Race Card Project's six-word stories, we'll meet some of the people who witnessed that history and hear their memories and reflections on race relations in America today.
Throughout 1963, American TV screens had been filled with images of non-violent demonstrations that turned ugly, with Southern police officers unleashing dogs and fire hoses on protesters. There were broad concerns all the way up to the top levels of government about the March on Washington. How large would the crowd be? Might there be violence?
But Jack Hansan of Cincinnati was not concerned about all that. A white man who'd been working on civil rights in Ohio, he wanted to be in that number, however large or small the gathering.
"We had to get rid of this — I don't know how you would say it — this discrimination that was so prevalent in communities like our education system, our churches," Hansan says. "So participating in the march was like climbing a mountain, and for us, we wanted to be on the top."
That did not sit well with Jack Hansan's father. He wrote a letter pleading for his son to stay put.
"He lived in Kansas City, Mo., and his message was, 'I wish you wouldn't go,' " Hansan explains. "And he said, 'Your real responsibility is to your family, your sons.' But you know, that was him."
Hansan was one of 500 Cincinnati businessmen and civic activists who took a special train to D.C., leaving Cincinnati at 5 p.m. "We rode two nights on a train, one up and one back. There was no club car, but it was fun," he laughs. The group spent the night talking and schmoozing. "We were all dressed politely, like we were going to an office — shirts and ties."
That attire was no accident. Marchers were advised by the local organizing committee to look clean and sharp, dressed as if they were in D.C. to close a deal.
Once they got to the city, Hansan says he had never seen a crowd that large and integrated. "I do remember the songs and listening to the entertainers ... I remember Peter, Paul And Mary," he laughs. "I remember the songs more than I do the speeches."
Even so, Hansan knew he was witnessing history that day and wanted to tell his wife and four young sons about it. He grabbed a plain postcard, stamped with a Lincoln 4-cent stamp, and jotted down a few words. Hansan, who still has the postcard, chokes up as he reads his note aloud.
As Hansan reads, his wife, Ethel, looks on and weeps. Her husband's trip — and the uncertainty over what might happen at the march — was very stressful, she says. "Just listening to him talk about it, it did bring me to tears remembering back on what it felt to be left back with the little ones and not really knowing what was happening there.
"Fortunately, we did have a television set and they were broadcasting it, so I was kind of living it vicariously," she continues. "But the little kids were ignored and not properly taken care of most of the day, because I sat in front of the television watching it with a great deal of trepidation."
Rev. King's speech was very moving, Ethel Hansan says. And even today, she cries when she hears the song, "We Shall Overcome." "That was very moving for me, when they were all holding hands, and they were singing."
Ethel and Jack Hansan, who now live in Northern Virginia, are proud of their memories. He's Catholic and she's Jewish, and the pair has spent a lifetime working on building bridges of all kinds. They've kept a treasure trove of mementos from the march.
When asked to share their own six-word stories on race relations in America today, Jack Hansan says, "We all need to keep trying."
"That's it," he says. "You know, it's not been done. And the March on Washington was just one of the starting events, but it's still not complete."
Ethel had a harder time settling on just six words. "But what I would like to impart to people who are persecuted is to rise above it," she says. "You know, don't let it drag you down.
"Because I think that's the tendency, when you have all that negative stuff thrown at you, that you tend to believe it," she says. "Don't believe it. You're better than that ... You're better than that and you know it. You should know it."
You can find more of Jack Hansan's memories and mementos from the March on Washington at The Social Welfare History Project, a website he founded to educate the public about the history of social welfare in America.