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March On Washington Had Lasting Impact On 3 Detroiters


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Fifty years ago tomorrow, a quarter of a million people crowded onto the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. They came for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as it was called, and to see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports on three people who were there, all from the Detroit area, and the lasting impact the march has had on their lives.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Detroiters had reason to feel a special connection to the March on Washington. Just two months earlier, the city hosted its own Freedom March. It drew 125,000 people and Dr. King.


DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I have a dream this afternoon that one day, right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them...

GONYEA: The Detroit speech was like a dress rehearsal for the March on Washington. And on that day, King issued an invite to come to the D.C. event, which promised to be even bigger.

Edith Lee Payne still lives in Detroit. An African-American, she lived in an integrated neighborhood. Her mother had taken her to see Dr. King's speech in June. And in August, the two of them took a bus to D.C. and were on the National Mall.

EDITH LEE PAYNE: I was standing facing Dr. King. I would be standing to his left, near the front. I had a very good spot.

GONYEA: The day of the March on Washington was also Edith Lee Payne's 12th birthday. What sticks in her mind is the size of the crowd, including so many children her age - from North and South, she says. At the time, she didn't appreciate how historic the day was but she knew it was important.

PAYNE: When Dr. King spoke, it was a hush. You could hear a pin drop. He stirred people's souls because people were crying, my mother was crying, as he was speaking. It just meant to me that it was what America should be. Everybody together, that was America.

GONYEA: A photograph taken that day capturing Payne's young, wide-eyed and very attentive face became one of the iconic images of the march.

Another Detroit area resident who was there was Richard Smith. He was 24 years old, a future Episcopal priest but at the time a student at a seminary in the Northeast.

REVEREND RICHARD SMITH: My expectations were that I would be fairly close to the action, that I might even get a chance to meet Dr. King. Obviously that was...


SMITH: That was based on my own naivete.

GONYEA: Ultimately his vantage point was, as he puts it, way, way, way back. Smith is white and grew up in a working class Detroit suburb, where he says attitudes towards race were far from enlightened. He recalls the well-publicized fears in D.C. and elsewhere that there would be violence at the march. But he says that day was, quote, "utopian."

SMITH: And then when Dr. King got up, it just was an unbelievable climax to probably, in terms of an event outside of family, the most important event of my life.

GONYEA: Marc Stepp also traveled from Detroit to Washington for the march. Stepp was there as part of a large contingent from the United Auto Workers Union. The UAW had been a strong supporter of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. Its president, Walter Reuther, marched side-by-side with King in Detroit months earlier. And the UAW helped finance the March on Washington. Reuther was among the featured speakers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.


WALTER REUTHER: For 100 years, the Negro people have searched for first-class citizenship. And I believe that they cannot and should not wait until some distant tomorrow. They should demand freedom now...


REUTHER: Here and now.


GONYEA: Marc Stepp was working as a sergeant-at-arms for the UAW that day. His job was to direct and assist people arriving on buses. Once on the mall, he was positioned between the Reflecting Pool and the steps of the monument.

MARC STEPP: I have my UAW cap on. I was really proud that the UAW helped bring this about. And so, yeah, very, very, very, very pleased.

GONYEA: Stepp, who started working in the auto plants when he was 19, recalls the pride he felt when he realized Dr. King's speech at the march was so similar to the one he'd heard a Detroit. Fifteen years later, Stepp would become the first African-American to head a UAW department at one of the big car companies.

He was a vice president. And as such, he led UAW contract talks at Chrysler. It was an important milestone. He credits Walter Reuther, Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement, and the things he saw on display at the March on Washington.

STEPP: And when you got prominent people like Walter Reuther and Martin Luther King, out advocating and loudly themselves for America to be a democratic society, and it gave me the encouragement to pursue that. 'Cause what they were saying, it was for me.

GONYEA: Today, Marc Stepp is 90 years old. There's so much work yet to be done, he says, as he sits in his living room in Detroit. Still, Stepp says, thinking back on that day gives him a great sense of calm.

Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.