BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - While the iconic moment of the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is now the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, many people in attendance or watching on TV didn't get to hear the speech that day.
"There were so many people and it was a very hot day," Nick Ganaway, 64, of Pleasantville, said at a ceremony honoring today's 50th anniversary of the march Tuesday at the African American Heritage Museum of South Jersey in Newtonville. Ganaway was 14 when he went to the historic event on a bus trip arranged by the Atlantic City NAACP.
"We were so far from the speakers, we couldn't hear any of that," Ganaway said.
Instead, he mainly remembers the feeling of solidarity with people from all over the nation, many from places in which racism was much more virulent than in Atlantic City, where he grew up.
"I had friends from all over town," he said, and from all backgrounds and ethnic groups. But he knew it wasn't that way for many other people, especially those from the South. So he wanted to help them improve their circumstances.
Ganaway said he went to the march not knowing what to expect, never realizing he was on his way to an event that would be celebrated a half-century later.
"You can't really anticipate something like that," Ganaway said. "I was just a little guy. I didn't know what it was going to become."
Museum founder Ralph Hunter said King's speech came late in the day, too late for the six o'clock news.
"It was one of the most important speeches in history, and it didn't hit until the 11 o'clock news," he said, adding Dr. King was the 16th speaker of the day.
So it took a while for the speech to make its impact, as people around the country slowly heard it and digested its message, he said.
Barack Obama was 2 years old and growing up in Hawaii when King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Today, 50 years later, the nation's first black president will stand at that same spot and deliver remarks at a nationwide commemoration of the 1963 demonstration for jobs, economic justice and racial equality.
Obama has said he believes his success in attaining the nation's highest political office is a testament to the dedication of King and others, and that he would not be the current Oval Office occupant if it were not for their willingness to persevere through repeated imprisonments, bomb threats and blasts from billy clubs and fire hoses.
Hunter said King was imprisoned 22 times, and that's why there are 22 stars surrounding his portrait on the commemorative flag often flown in his honor. He also worked with 22 organizations to organize the 1963 march, Hunter said.
In tribute, Obama keeps a bust of King in the Oval Office and a framed copy of the program from that historic day when 250,000 people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Within five years of the march, King was dead, assassinated in April 1968 outside of a motel room in Memphis, Tenn. But King's dream didn't die with him. Many point to Obama's election in 2008 as the first black U.S. president as the most high-profile example of the racial progress King espoused.
In today's speech, Obama will offer his personal reflections on the civil rights movement, King's speech, the progress achieved in the past 50 years and the challenges that demand attention from the next generation.
Rose Guilford, of Richland, said she had young children at the time of the 1963 march, so she couldn't attend. Instead she watched it on TV. She was most impressed by the sheer size of the crowd.
"I was wishing I could have been there," Guilford said. "There were so many people, it looked like a flower garden."
She said her mother grew up in the South, and her brothers used to visit an aunt who still lived there. They came back with stories of water fountains marked "white only" and "colored only."
One brother told her the water tasted the same in each. He had sampled both, and that scared his aunt, Guilford said.
"She would get so nervous. She said they just don't understand," Guilford said.
The Rev. David V. Mallory, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Richland, wasn't able to attend the 1963 march, but went to Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va., and participated in sit-ins at lunch counters and other nonviolent protest activities there, he said at the museum Tuesday.
"The most frightening thing that I saw was in Thalhimer's Department Store (in Richmond)," he said of a restaurant sit-in there in 1960. "The (white) kids got out of school and came to harass the kids sitting at the counters.
"There was an endless line of white students coming down the escalators, shouting insults," Mallory said. "It just didn't run out."
Yet in the long run, the energy of the nonviolent protesters outlasted the energy of hatred, he said. And his experiences there strengthened his resolve to contribute to society.
Mallory quoted some of his favorite words of King's, not from the "Dream" speech, but from the "Drum Major Instinct" sermon of Feb. 4, 1968.
"And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness ... he who is greatest among you shall be your servant," King said. "It means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. ... You only need a heart full of grace, (and) a soul generated by love."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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If you go
The March On Washington Exhibit is on display at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, at the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center, 661 Jackson Road, Newtonville in Buena Vista Township. The exhibit includes photos, the original 1963 march invitation booklet sent to museum founder Ralph Hunter's pastor father, and memorabilia of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the march. King's letters from a Birmingham jail are soon to be added. A limited number of color copies of the 1963 invitation booklet are available for a $50 donation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 609-704-5495.