Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is considered one of the most iconic and influential of the 20th century. But Ted Mann, 85, didn’t hear it — at least not that day.
Mann was positioned close to the stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial, listening to the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the head of the American Jewish Congress, who preceded King in the speaking order. But during Prinz’s presentation, Mann was overcome by the summer heat and fainted. While King was making history, outlining the vision of a colorblind nation, Mann, then 35, was receiving medical treatment.
“Somehow, the people that ran the enormous event got a stretcher into this phenomenal crowd,” said Mann, a retired Philadelphia lawyer and longtime leader in national Jewish affairs. At the time, he was active in the American Jewish Congress, whose local chapter was then led by Milton Shapp, who in 1971 became governor of Pennsylvania.
“I was really pissed off,” Mann continued. “King’s speech turned out to be everything. It was a great occasion.”
This week, the nation marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event that drew widespread attention to the cause of racial inequality and helped usher in major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. Thousands of Jews took part in the march — a number of buses left from Philadelphia — and the event came to symbolize for many the burgeoning black-Jewish alliance on civil rights.
Several participants, now in their 70s or 80s, said they knew instantly that they had just taken part in a transformational moment in American history. Others, encumbered by the heat of the day or the large crowds, didn’t get that sense until a little later, taking pride in the fact that they were there, even if they didn’t witness history from the best vantage point.
Burt Siegel, the 70-year-old retired director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, was a student at Rutgers University. He decided to drive down rather than take the bus, provoking an argument with his then-girlfriend. They became ensnared in a traffic jam and eventually wound up standing so far from the stage on the National Mall that the speeches were inaudible.
“I didn’t have much of a sense of history in the making. It was hot, it was crowded,” he said. He later took part in a King-led march through Cicero, Ill., in 1966, that called for housing integration. That event was more personally memorable, he said.
“We were marching down the street and there were overpasses. And these white northerners were throwing things down on us, including excrement,” said Siegel. “We can rail against southern racism, but we really have to deal with those issues at home.”
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the 79-year-old director of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, said it is impossible to overstate how important it was that 250,000 people marched in the nation’s capital in 1963.
“That had never happened on the mall,” said Waskow. “There was so much hope on the one side, fear on the other. President Kennedy didn’t want it to happen. He wasn’t so excited about becoming a civil rights president. And when it did happen, it happened so big and peaceful.”
Reflecting on the significance of the march and speech, Waskow said, “We have taken a lot of steps, but we certainly haven’t achieved the dreams.”
In many ways, he said, things are far better now for black Americans than they were in 1963, but in certain ways — such as the number of young African-American men in prison — things are worse.
Waskow also cited the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned major provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as a major setback.
For Bernie Dinkin, an 80-year-old veteran of the civil rights and labor movements, the march was just one stop, albeit an important one, on the long road toward equality.
When Barack Obama was elected president, “I first started to cry,” said Dinkin, an Elkins Park resident who attended the rally and later also took part in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. “I thought that all the work that all the people did back then resulted in Obama being able to be president of this country.”
Mann said he can’t get over how much the world has changed in 50 years. Around the same time of the historic march, his law firm was among the first in Philadelphia to hire an African-American associate.
“We have come such a long way. Maybe we shouldn’t think that way because we have got so far to go,” said Mann. “Are we finished? Hell no.”