Boise residents shared the dream during the March on Washington

Three people who attended the march on Aug. 28, 1963, reflect on their brush with history.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comAugust 27, 2013 

  • 50th ANNIVERSARY EVENT IN BOISE

    State Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, a Boise Democrat, will join Yvonne McCoy, Jack Owens and Karl Shurtliff in speaking at a celebration of the anniversary of the March on Washington.

    The event is set for noon at the Anne Frank Memorial, on the Greenbelt just south of the main Boise Public Library at Capitol Boulevard and River Street. Boise State students plan to walk from the campus quad to the memorial, meeting at 11:40 a.m.

    The hourlong event will also include a reading of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Retired Hewlett-Packard executive Don Curtis will emcee.

    The event is free and open to the public. For information, call organizer Thomas Rogers at 949-7807.

They came from Passaic, N.J., on a bus; walked over from a job at the Smithsonian with a sack lunch; and drove down from a Washington, D.C., rooming house.

Now living in Boise, Yvonne McCoy, Jack Owens and Karl Shurtliff helped pack the space between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago for the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

For 15-year-old McCoy, whose grandparents were sharecroppers and great-grandparents were slaves, being within 75 yards of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a life-changing event.

"He was my hero and there he was, live, in person, speaking to this crowd," recalled McCoy. "And I just thought: Anything is possible. He was saying that African-American children - kids like me - had a chance to become whatever we wanted, whomever we wanted to be, it was finally possible."

For Owens, then 19 and the son and grandson of high-ranking labor officials, the day supplied the coda to a coming-of-age summer where he saw bigotry crush the hopes of poor children who were wards of the District of Columbia.

"There was no doubt in my mind that if children coming into that system were going to have any future, you were going to have to break the back of segregation," said Owens.

For Shurtliff, great-great-grandson of LDS pioneers in Eastern Idaho's Jefferson County, it was an affirmation of lessons taught by working-class parents who didn't know any African-Americans but treated their small town's first Mexican-American family with respect.

"The idea of somebody being worse than somebody else based on their skin color was anathema to them," said Shurtliff, 23 when he attended. "That would have been silly and stupid."

A DAWN RIDE FROM JERSEY

McCoy's father had moved the family to New Jersey from Virginia in 1961, after the only time she ever saw him cry in his 104 years. His tears fell when he told his youngest child he was not allowed to vote for John F. Kennedy because he was a black man and lived in Petersburg, Va.

But neither her father nor her white mother was keen on her joining the march because many feared violence. Jails were readied, hospitals canceled elective surgery and troops were stationed across the Potomac.

A church leader helping organize some of the thousands of buses that carried marchers to Washington finally convinced McCoy's parents she would be looked after.

Leaving at daybreak, McCoy had a window seat. "We were so excited," she said. "We were also scared, but nobody wanted to show it. We just pretended there was no fear, that all the energy was positive."

The day was so memorable, McCoy recalls precisely the contents of a big brown sack on her lap. Inside were four Dagwood sandwiches, layered with lettuce, tomato, salami, bologna, olive loaf, ham, chicken and her first-ever taste of mortadella - an extravagance suggested by the Italian grocer who also sold her the poppyseed-topped Kaiser rolls.

"How many people are going with you?" asked the man. "Just me," replied McCoy, who was accustomed to being hungry and used her baby-sitting earnings to splurge. She also had half a cake cut to share, soft drinks and the rare treat of fresh fruit.

Other than tamping down the fear, McCoy's biggest challenge on the ride was when to unwrap the first Dagwood. "I was thinking, it's there and I want to eat it. But is it too soon? I can smell it. And it's the best sandwich I've had in my whole life."

MOVED BY A SPIRITUAL SONG

The bus arrived early and McCoy and a friend pressed toward the front. Crowd estimates remain disputed - the National Archive puts the figure at 250,000, the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at 200,000 - but to McCoy the largest peaceful gathering in U.S. history seemed bigger.

"It looked like millions," she said. "I had never seen so many white people there with black people, talking, laughing, sharing experiences, singing."

She remembers Peter, Paul and Mary, Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier. But Mahalia Jackson's singing "How I Got Over" broke her down. "I just wept," she said.

Jackson appears to have played a role in prompting King to divert from his prepared text into the "I Have a Dream" peroration we best remember. According to a new book, "The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream," Jackson twice shouted, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" After her second call, King set aside his paper and finished with a preacher's flourish.

McCoy shed tears of joy during King's 16 minutes. "This told me we were almost there. We were no longer going to be separate and apart, we were going to become part of the American fabric," she said.

On the ride home, "We sang songs and talked about what we were going to do next. We were exhilarated, but exhausted. And finally, the bus was just quiet as we slowly went to sleep."

As she walked home, McCoy's dad was at one of his night jobs, but her mom had been up watching every minute of the news.

"She hugged me and we cried, because she was glad to see that I was home but also glad that I did it. She would have liked to have done it herself," she said.

McCoy went on to protest segregation during summers in Virginia and graduated from Howard University. She worked for the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, and as a computer expert at a Washington law firm.

In 2003, she moved to Boise with her husband, Garry Wenske. She sings in the Boise Philharmonic Master Chorale, is a docent at the Boise Art Museum and is a board member at Opera Idaho, Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Boise Baroque Orchestra.

Though troubled by economic inequality, McCoy, 65, said some of the promise of the march has been fulfilled. "Look who we have for president," she said. "That says volumes. Without the march, there would have been no African-American president."

SON OF LABOR

Jack Owens' grandfather was international secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers of America and his father spent his career at UMWA as a lawyer.

In the summer of 1963, Owens was between his freshman and sophomore years at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first American school to recruit black students. His father worked closely with John L. Lewis, the larger-than-life figure with eyebrows like walrus mustaches who ran the UMWA for 40 years and died in 1969.

As Owens waited one day for his dad to take him to lunch, Lewis stopped to congratulate the youth on attending such a fine school. "But he also said, 'Do you know that Oberlin uses 50,000 tons of nonunion coal a year?' He had this tremendous memory. I checked. It was true," he said.

Owens had an internship in the Smithsonian library and volunteered as a Boy Scout leader at Junior Village, Washington's notorious child welfare home.

Run by the congressional committee that then controlled D.C. government before home rule, the buildings were former military barracks and "fire traps" where children were locked in at night, carried D-minus averages as a group and didn't even own their winter coats.

"Sometimes, I'd be so mad I'd have tears in my eyes," Owens said. "The very clear motive for the majority of those congressmen was to see that nothing that involved black people was going to work. I marched that day to provide a better future for those children. And I have not stopped marching."

WANDERING THE MALL

Owens, 69, likes to say he's the only person who marched twice, first with the United Auto Workers when he failed to find the UMWA contingent and a second time when he located the miners.

He also remembers Peter, Paul and Mary, who were a big influence on his own folk guitar playing. On a hot, humid day, people dangled not just feet but legs in the Reflecting Pool.

"There were all these predictions of violence, but it was so exciting and people were so happy to be there. One of my very sharp memories is the physical and emotional sense of being part of that kind of crowd," Owens said.

Owens met his wife, Grace, at Oberlin. They raised three children - two hard-to-place black boys they adopted and a girl born to Grace - and became teachers.

In 1975, they moved to Pocatello, where Grace taught Spanish at Highland High School and Jack history at Idaho State University. Both were active in the NAACP branch, and in 1987, Grace was awarded the National Education Association's Martin Luther King Jr. Award for her work to defuse a confrontation with white supremacists.

Owens, who earned his doctorate in history at the University of Wisconsin, transferred to ISU's Meridian campus in 2009.

Like McCoy, he worries about the economic gaps that put black unemployment at twice that of whites, about the same as it was 50 years ago. The average black family now has one-sixth the wealth of whites; in 1963, the divide was smaller, 5-to-1.

"The most serious aspect is the erosion of organized labor," Owens said, citing the lessons of his father and grandfather. "They didn't believe that any government could be counted on. If you didn't have significant organizational strength to hold them to their promises, there was a real possibility of erosion."

'YOU'RE WHAT?'

Karl Shurtliff, now 73, was in the Capitol working at a patronage job at the Post Office, landed for him by then Idaho Congressman Ralph Harding. He was rooming in northwest Washington with other young men from Idaho and Utah. It being a Saturday, he tried to get some of his pals to join him at the march. But there was real fear of violence.

"All these other guys said, 'What? You're what?' I couldn't get any of them to go with me. For me, it was an event," he said. "There was no great moral crusade on my part. I'd call it more intellectual curiosity than any sense of moral indignation. It wasn't just discrimination, it was jobs and fair treatment. It made sense."

In 1962, Shurtliff was elected to the Idaho House and served one term, which prompted the Army to release him from active duty after a six-week stint at Fort Gordon, Ga. In Georgia, he was close to fellow 1st lieutenants from South Carolina and Virginia, as well as a black visiting officer from the Liberian army named Lincoln.

The southerners wanted Shurtliff to tell Lincoln he couldn't ride in the front seat when they went into town. "I said, 'I can't understand that and I don't think I could explain it to Lincoln because it's incomprehensible to me.' It's just offensive; intellectually it can't be supported," he said.

Parking near Lafayette Square, he walked around the White House to the Mall. Because he was alone, he was able to press to within about 50 yards of the stage at the Lincoln Memorial.

King was the last of 10 speakers to deliver formal remarks during the three-hour program. The others weren't slouches, said Shurtliff, recalling the fiery talk of John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman and then the 23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Also memorable: A. Philip Randolph, the march organizer who had first proposed the event in 1941, only to be persuaded by President Franklin Roosevelt to cancel.

"I knew at the time I was hearing an awfully good speech (by King)," Shurtliff said. "But I heard other awfully good speeches. It wasn't like he hit a grand slam and the rest of 'em just hit singles. They all had you thinking."

MR. JUSTICE MAN

Shurtliff's Idaho home town, Menan, had fewer than 1,000 people, and the state's population was about 700,000. At the march, "I was impressed by just the sheer number of people."

Deciding he wanted to be a lawyer, Shurtliff came home to the University of Idaho, graduating in 1968. His first job was in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, where he worked six years. The office was charged with enforcing two laws that the march helped make reality - the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Shurtliff helped enforce equality in public accommodations and supervised elections in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Jersey.

Blacks called him Mr. Justice Man. He once had to address a crowd attempting to browbeat an elderly black man who didn't want to vote. "We stood there awhile and had a civics lesson about how the right to vote includes the right not to vote," Shurtliff recalled. "They let him go and he didn't vote."

Shurtliff also had encounters with those hostile to the new laws. Outside one rural Mississippi polling place, a group of white men stopped him: "Aren't you afraid somebody's going to shoot your nigger-loving ass?"

Replied Shurtliff: "No, if somebody shot me, there would be so many FBI agents down here that people would lynch whoever shot me because they wouldn't like it."

The men nodded in recognition of a new reality.

"They knew," Shurtliff said.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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