Hearing King's message when young helped shape these Americans' lives

Yahoo News

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's speech, Yahoo News asked Americans who remember Aug. 28, 1963, to share their recollections and what it meant to them. Here are excerpts from some selected submissions.

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The day started with my family gathered around the old black-and-white television set. My father and uncle left for Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Aug. 27, to attend the March on Washington.

I remember my aunts, uncles and neighbors meeting in our kitchen discussing how important this event would be and how it would change the future for black people all over the country. They were also very excited because Martin Luther King would be speaking. I knew how important he was to my family.

I asked, "Is he going to be president?"

My mother replied, "No honey, black people are not allowed to be president, but I believe if anyone can change that it would be Dr. King."

I thought, How would a march change our lives?

Many speakers addressed the humongous crowd and finally it was time for Dr. King to speak. I sat on the floor in front of our television set, hoping to catch a glimpse of my father and uncle. The living room went silent. Although his speech was only 16 minutes long, from a child's perspective it seemed to go on forever. However, his climactic ending is etched in my memory forever: "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!"

My family wept.

Deb Martin-Webster was 11 in 1963.

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The fact that, as African-Americans, my family and I didn't have the same privileges as others was just life as we knew it. For example, knowing that I couldn't even think about going downtown and sitting at the lunch counter in Woolworth's didn't really bother me. My mother and I were living in a public housing project, and spending money to eat out wasn't on our agenda.

The March on Washington and Dr. King's speech helped restore that diminished sense of self that segregation imposed on me as a child. As I watched on TV, I had a sense of pride that black people were doing something so grand and significant. Listening to Dr. King, I really began to believe that one day I would be judged not on the color of my skin, but on the content of my character.

The speech planted seeds of hope and confidence that helped me make it through the first non-segregated school I ever attended, the University of Tennessee. And they are still with me today.

Ronald Franklin was 14 and living in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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"We're all in this together," my mother would often tell me. They voted for President John F. Kennedy. They also respected Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

His "I Have a Dream" speech, given at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, was eventually transcribed in the local paper. My parents read it over and over again and found meaning and comfort in Dr. King's words. They wanted me to read it too, but I didn't. I was 9 and was more interested in the comic page than reading words about civil rights.

Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., five years after his famous speech. My mother cried. My father didn't want to talk about it.

My parents are gone now, but for years, they kept that copy of Dr. King's speech that was printed in the Vevay, Ind., newspaper. Now, I have it.

I think his dream was my parents' dream and in the summer of 1963, I wish I had been smart enough or old enough to realize that. Now their dream and Dr. King's dream is my dream, too.

Larry Gross was 9 and living in Vevay, Ind.

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On the day of the March on Washington, I joined other students in my dorm to watch the proceedings on TV. Like millions of people that day, I was awestruck by the words of the young clergyman from Georgia. This, I thought, is a defining moment for the civil rights movement, and the beginning of change.

I quickly learned that change comes in baby steps and not giant leaps. By the time I graduated in 1967, the restaurant that I had picketed and the movie theater I had boycotted remained whites-only. The road to equality, I came to realize, was long and winding.

There is no doubt we have made great strides since the March on Washington. But the journey to equality has been arduous and we are not there yet. Still, I am hopeful. After all, isn't what Dr. King wanted for his children 50 years ago — freedom from injustice, a better life, and a country united as one people — what we all want for our loved ones?

Sharon Gloger Friedman was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Florida.

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For me, it was a turning point. The powerful words stirred me to the core, forging a lifelong disdain for injustice and oppression that has since shaped my world.

Even at that tender young age, I knew in my heart that I would take a stand against racism and inequality. Riding the wave of the times, while my peers were primping and planning parties and proms, Dr. King's eloquent and poignant words resonated in my soul. I became a teenage activist, embracing feminism and protesting the Vietnam War. I carried my zeal for justice with me to the University of Wisconsin, where I embraced Madison's tumultuous political climate and added my own fuel to the fires of change.

Today, my penchant for social justice continues to mold my life. My children have followed in my footsteps, becoming exceptions to the millennial generation's stereotypes of entitlement and self-absorption, and calling their peers to account through blogs and social media.

Michelle Matte was 9 and living in Wausau, Wis.

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I don't remember if I heard [the speech] that day or in the days following. What I do know is that when a child who is yet uncorrupted by the prejudices of the world hears the truth, he knows it when he hears it. That speech and the civil rights movement not only affected me, it profoundly affected an entire generation of people. To this day, when I hear the recordings of his speech, it brings me to tears.

I am white, and I not only heard the words he said, I also felt them to my core, and I still do. When he talked about being "judged by the content of one's character," I hoped he meant me, too. I think he did. Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, which included women's civil liberties, but that battle, like the one on race, still is being waged. Without King's speech, that law may never have been passed. His very public struggle made that possible.

Sandra Snow

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