Johnstown residents point to impact of King's 'I Have a Dream' speech 60 years ago

Aug. 26—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Two significant anniversaries dealing with race relations — one local, one national — will occur within the coming days.

Monday will mark 60 years since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Then, on Sept. 7, Johnstown will acknowledge the centennial date of the infamous 1923 Rosedale banishment, when Mayor Joseph Cauffiel issued an edict expelling all Black and Mexican people who had not lived in the city for at least seven years. His order was in response to an incident on Aug. 30, 1923, when a Black migrant steel millworker from the South shot six white police officers, four of whom died.

Cody McDevitt, author of "Banished from Johnstown: Racist Backlash in Pennsylvania," a book about the Rosedale incident, linked King's speech and what happened in Johnstown.

"My favorite part of that — and I quoted that speech in my book — is our rights are linked to their rights," McDevitt said. "White people have to realize that when a Black person's due-process rights are lost or deprived — or rights to earn a living, or anything — that affects white people as well, because our rights are linked to theirs, so we should seek to protect their rights as much as we would protect our own."

King's "I Have a Dream" speech is one of the most famous oratory statements in the nation's history.

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together," King told the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial.

'Two races had to come together'

Ron Coleman, then an 18-year-old Franklin Borough resident, was in the crowd.

"It totally changed my life. ... I never knew a speech like that," Coleman said. "The place was so quiet whenever he was making his speech, you could hear a pin drop."

Coleman continued: "It was very special. It made me realize that the two races had to come together and try to live together and quit living separate."

Current NAACP Johnstown Branch President Alan Cashaw was a child in 1963, but later grew to appreciate the importance of King's words.

"I was in college and out of college when I understood how special the speech was, because we actually had Dr. King celebrations in January around his birthday, and this was before there was a holiday," Cashaw said. "My graduate chapter of my fraternity would have Dr. Martin Luther King marches or lunches. We'd celebrate them by giving out scholarships to students. We would have students recite that speech.

"It was then that it became special to me. As an adult, I understood what it meant to have equality and equity in education and knew that it started way back in elementary school."

King concluded his remarks by saying, "And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.' "

"It was Dr. King's vision of the future where we had these major breakthroughs on civil rights," Cashaw said. "He talked about where he could see his children walking hand in hand with other children, and he named all the categories of kids, spiritually, Europeans and African Americans, religious and nonreligious, Christian."

"And symbolically, I would say today, he said Jews and Gentiles, but I'm thinking he's even thinking Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus. They all can walk hand in hand and be free at last."