1963 march participant Gayle Fallon

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'It's all about human rights'

By her own account, Gayle Fallon as an 18-year-old college student in Washington, D.C., “didn’t have a clue” about the civil rights movement in the summer of 1963. But the city’s newspapers, radio and television had been buzzing for months, balanced on the edge of excitement and fear, about an upcoming March on Washington. She remembers bars and liquor stores locking up tight in the final hours before the march, their owners anticipating trouble.

Gayle Fallon

What actually unfolded was utterly peaceful, says Fallon, now president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. There was “tremendous entertainment,” she says. “Every folk singer who was anyone was there.” When members of the American Nazi Party showed up and strutted around in their regalia, the marchers just wanted to take their pictures, so the Nazis went home.

Fallon found herself, at only 5 feet tall, being ushered toward the front of the crowd, right behind the first rows of VIPs and press, so she could see. Everyone could hear. Dr. King’s speech was the only one she remembers.

“Just listening, I learned more than I’d ever learned in a classroom. I knew nothing about the South, about voter suppression,” she says. “That’s when I started looking around and realizing that segregation was just as bad in the Northeast as it was in the South.”

As a direct result of the March on Washington, Fallon went to Mississippi the next summer to help register black voters. There she learned some more: that it’s frightening when the police are not your friends, and that you have to get people past their fears before they will exercise their rights.

“If it hadn’t been for becoming involved in the civil rights movement, I would never have become involved in the labor movement—because they were one in the same,” she says. “It’s all about human rights and human dignity. I didn’t see any difference.”