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An intense swirl of excitement and tension gripped the 15-year-old twin brothers from Toledo.
Even then — 50 years ago today — the moment seemed surreal to Howard and Harry Brown as they marched along with more than 250,000 people, including the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr., who had organized the political rally that history now knows as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march occurred on Aug. 28, 1963.
Organized by civil rights and religious organizations, the event was designed to shed light on the political and social challenges blacks faced in America.
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Harry Brown, 65, said at the time the brothers really didn’t understand the importance of the day.
“Nah, not at all,” Harry Brown admits. “I thought we were there to make a statement. We knew it was the kind of thing that only happens once and never happens again in your life. But we didn’t understand the historical significance of that day.
“It means more to me now than it did then.”
Since Saturday, thousands of people from across the world have been participating in events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march that culminated in Mr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
Tens of thousands of people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday to honor the slain civil rights leader. The event featured several speakers, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), the only surviving speaker from the 1963 march.
The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library recognized the Washington march with a well-attended Saturday event that included musical performances, a short play, and a presentation by Angela Siner, a University of Toledo professor of African-American history. The acclaimed PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize was also shown.
The library is interviewing Toledo-area residents who participated in the 1963 march, said Irene Martin, the library’s preservationist for the Local History and Genealogy Department.
The library has identified about 60 people who were there. When the project is completed, their stories will be shared on the library's Web site.
Today's activities in Washington will include a 1.6-mile march that will be led by veterans of the 1963 march, according to organizers. At the conclusion of the march, President Obama will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Harry and Howard Brown can still remember the moment Mr. King took the stage at 3 p.m., Aug. 28, 1963, to speak.
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“You could see him and hear a little bit of his speech, but everyone was so excited you couldn’t hear everything he said,” Harry Brown recalled. “What he said meant more to me when I got home and heard the whole thing.”
The 1963 march occurred against the backdrop of a year that was noted for racial unrest and civil rights demonstrations. Across the nation, the public was growing increasingly outraged as media coverage showed police in Birmingham, Ala., using attack dogs and fire hoses on protesters, including many young children.
It was the year Mr. King was arrested several times and jailed, and when he wrote his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” which advocated civil disobedience against unjust laws. There was the assassination of 37-year-old civil rights activist Medgar Evers on June 12 by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council.
Mr. Evers was shot in the back as he exited his car and began walking into his house. Juries of all white men twice deadlocked on a verdict, allowing Beckwith to go free until Mr. Evers' body was exhumed in 1994 and new evidence was used to convict Beckwith for the murder.
Frustration was also mounting in 1963 because the proposed Civil Rights Act was stalled in Congress.
The threat of disruption by racist supremacist groups, like the Ku Klux Klan and the heavy police presence, added to the tense atmosphere during the 1963 march.
Harry and Howard Brown said they were surprised that their parents, who were both active in the Toledo- area NAACP, gave them permission to attend the march. Mrs. Brown was a police officer, and Mr. Brown operated a funeral home, so they could not go on the trip, their sons explained.
Very early that morning the teenagers joined several dozen other local NAACP members who traveled by train to Washington.
When they arrived, all they could see was a sea of humanity in every direction. Marchers were immediately directed to line up by state. The march began at 11 a.m.
“What surprised me the most was the range of people who were there — Hispanics, whites, and blacks,” Harry Brown recalled .
His brother was equally impressed.
“I’d never seen so many people,” remembers Howard Brown, who lives in Sylvania. “It was an eye-opening experience. I was excited to be a part of it.
“But when you look back on it, you realize the government had to be involved in it or it could have been much different.”
Howard Brown was referring to the markedly different atmosphere at the 1963 march versus earlier demonstrations where police and white politicians were often the antagonists.
After graduating from Scott High School in 1967, Howard Brown moved on to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where he earned a bachelor's degree in education. Later he received a master’s degree in education from the University of Toledo.
Harry Brown began working at Milan Federal Correctional Institution after high school and retired as a prison counselor after 20 years.
Their experiences 50 years ago left a lifelong impression on them, the brothers agree. That day gave people hope and paved the way for some changes and improvements for blacks and other people of color. But in other ways, America has seemed to lose its way during the past five decades, they said.
“The problem I see is we haven’t been able to implement the changes we presented at the march,” Howard Brown said.
He expels a long, loud sigh before rattling off a list of concerns: drugs, gangs, poverty, a breakdown in family structure. “If we had tried to create a strategy to fail, we couldn’t have planned it better.
“The March on Washington should be looked upon as something that brought us to a certain level,” Howard Brown said. “That should have led to another level in our community.”
Contact Federico Martinez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.