'A sea of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder'
On August 24, I will be volunteering to welcome to Washington, D.C., AFT members participating in the commemoration of the1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. For me, it will be a personal anniversary. I was there in ’63 as a 16-year old high school student going into my junior year at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.
My recollections of that historic march remain clear. I remember being woken up by my dad very early on the morning of Aug. 28, 1963, and grabbing some breakfast as we walked to the subway to take the train to 23rd Street in Manhattan and the United Federation of Teachers headquarters on Park Avenue South. My dad, Israel, was a UFT vice president.
I also recall my mother, who stayed behind, being nervous because no one knew quite what to expect when we got to Washington, D.C. There were concerns about trouble, even possible violence. But all of us were excited as we boarded one of the long line of buses outside the UFT headquarters. We knew that something big was happening—and that were all in it together.
My Dad and I sat in the second row of the bus we were on so I had a view not only out of the side window but the wide front bus windshield as well. I recall coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel as the sun came up and seeing a huge caravan of buses on the New Jersey Turnpike. The UFT buses had window signs but other buses had banners on the sides—Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), NAACP, various unions, neighborhood organizations, this church, that church. As buses passed each other, there were waves and salutes. As we passed Newark, Elizabeth and other exits, more buses joined the caravan.
When we arrived in Washington, D.C., our route to the bus parking took us down North Capitol Street. It was buses bumper to bumper. There were people on the sidewalks waving white handkerchiefs—clearly a gesture of welcome, support and bonding in a common cause. I was in awe of it all.
I remember walking and walking, and finally getting to about midway up the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial. There was a sea of people standing shoulder to shoulder. And man it was hot! But everyone was in good cheer, well-mannered and serious. We knew what we were there for. I recall the speakers, such as Walter Reuther (I remembered hearing his inspiring speech at the 1962 AFT Convention), Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the others. I also remember all the signs and men and women from civil rights and faith organizations, community leaders, rank-and-file union members, and caring citizens of all backgrounds. It was truly inspirational.
The 1963 march was what the labor movement and our allies are all about—creating a society where there is respect for civil and human rights; where there are good jobs for all who are able to work; where there is an acceptance of our obligation to help one another, particularly the less fortunate; where there is quality public education to provide all children with an opportunity to succeed; and where there is meaningfully participation in our democracy.
Like this year’s gathering, the march 50 years ago was also about quality healthcare, decent housing, a safe and secure retirement for all, and workers rights and a meaningful voice in the workplace. The AFT and other unions were at the center of it all in1963 and the same will be true this Aug. 24. I hope to see you there.
Phil Kugler is the assistant to the AFT president for Organization and Field Services.