‘That dream was everybody’s dream’
Franklin County residents reflect on March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years later
Bill Perlman of Ashfield sings during one of many events he participated in during the Civil Rights movement.
People gather around the reflecting pool, looking toward the Washington, Monument, near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, to listen to President Barack Obama speak during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. President Barack Obama led civil rights pioneers Wednesday in a ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech roused the 250,000 people who rallied there decades ago for racial equality. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
FILE - In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. (AP Photo/File)
When he arrived in the nation’s capital along with a slew of his friends from Stuyvesant High School — and thousands of others — for the March on Washington that day 50 years ago, Ashfield’s Bill Perlman recalled Wednesday, “You knew you were a molecule of water in a flood and knew your presence counted. Everyone was important there. With this incredible mass of people, you couldn’t be an elected official and look out on this sea of people and not be impressed.”
The former Ashfield selectman and longtime Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Committee member, who was then a 16-year-old member of the Lower Manhattan Students for Peace and among the youngest members of a family that had been politically active for generations, had gone by bus knowing, “Going to this march was sort of like a political imperative. It was going to be kind of a watershed moment kind of thing. No question about it.”
He was somewhere in that crowd of an estimated quarter-million, in the general area of the reflecting pool, where he could hear the speeches and songs on a loudspeaker. Perlman couldn’t have known that 20-year-old Ruth Sidney Charney, now of Greenfield, was “engulfed in a swarm that was purposeful. It was hot. It was also incredibly joyous.”
Charney, a student at Boston University who’d been working at a Head Start internship in Harlem, where coworkers were urging her to attend the momentous event, found herself on a bus filled with mostly African-American and Latino pilgrims that left Manhattan at 4 or 5 a.m. and was filled with hymn and gospel singing and generous sharing of food.
“As we got closer and closer to D.C., and it was bus after bus after bus, and we had the sense it was almost enormous. When you’re 19 or 20 years old, I don’t think you quite understand that you’re part of history.”
Perlman, a teen who had already been to plenty of “ban the bomb” and labor rallies in New York, found the speeches that day riveting. Surrounded by that sea of humanity, taking in the power of those words from the Lincoln Memorial steps, “You knew it was just huge.”
The speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King and newly elected Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis, in particular, “just swept you up,” he said. “Their words just washed over everybody. You could have heard a pin dropped. It was inspiring. You had concepts, ideas, ideals that you knew were important, you knew you could fight for. That dream was everybody’s dream. We could all share in it.”
Charney, who went on to teach in Head Start preschool programs and eventually become a founding teacher at the Greenfield Center School and a co-director of the Northeast Foundation for Children, from which she retired in 2008, remembers, “We were aware of something in John Lewis’ speech, something fiery.
“For me, even though it took a while to absorb, going back for my senior year, in college, it suddenly seemed the only thing important to do was to be connected to the Civil Rights movement,” she recalls.
Perlman, too, said, “Those experiences are part of you forever. I’ve heard the ‘I have a dream’ phrase thousands of times after that. It triggers something in me because it was such an emotional experience.”
Perlman went on to more Civil Rights rallies and to participate in them, as a member of the Freedom Singers beginning in 1965, playing songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Which Side Are You On” on New England college campuses, at churches throughout the South, in living rooms and auditoriums to raise money and buoy spirits for the Civil Rights movement.
Yet some of those recent tours in the South, playing to school groups that were almost all black, Perlman lamented, “There is no school integration down there. I don’t know how they get around it. They have charter schools to segregate kids.”
Looking back over the past half century, given dismantling of the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action programs, as well as the unemployment rates and incarceration rate of blacks, Perlman said, “They took down the (‘whites only’) signs,” but adds, “We didn’t win hearts and minds.”
Having the nation’s first black president in office, he admitted, “is a signal that we’ve come very far from where we were 50 years ago, but we’ve got a long, long way to go. The Civil Rights movement is a very active blip in a struggle that started more than 200 years ago, and is going to go on for the next 200 years, because whatever that goal is, it hasn’t been reached.”
Though Perlman went on to hear King several times from the same stage, instead of from a quarter-mile away on the Washington Mall, there was a difference 50 years ago, he said. “Surrounded by the power of his voice and his words, everybody was close to him that day.”
You can reach Richie Davis at
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