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Memories of the dream: Witnesses recall historic Martin Luther King Jr. 1963 speech

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The Rev. Dick Harrison, 86, said the civil rights movement showed him that people from different backgrounds, races and religions can "work together to solve problems, and build a better country and a better world." (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The Rev. Dick Harrison, 86, said the civil rights movement showed him that people from different backgrounds, races and religions can “work together to solve problems, and build a better country and a better world.” (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Jim Mackenzie shows an organizing manual for the March on Washington that he attended when he was a 17-year-old civil rights activist and a witness to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 "I Have a Dream" speech. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Jim Mackenzie shows an organizing manual for the March on Washington that he attended when he was a 17-year-old civil rights activist and a witness to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 “I Have a Dream” speech. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Jim Mackenzie was a teenager in August 1963 when he accompanied his parents and a group of other mostly white middle-class folks on a chartered bus from Connecticut to the mall in Washington, D.C.

There, the 17-year-old found himself in the company of more than 250,000 other people participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the highlight was Dr. Martin Luther King’s impassioned call to end racism in America, now known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

In January 2009, Mackenzie returned to that spot on the mall where he had stood 46 years earlier, this time with his 14-year-old daughter. Together, they celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president.

Dick Harrison, 86, was a Presbyterian associate minister in Urbana, Ill., when he decided to answer Dr. King’s call for clergy of all faiths to join in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches in support of black voter registration.

Each year, as the nation honors King on the third Monday of January, Mackenzie and Harrison flash back to their short time with the slain civil rights leader and their own small contribution to the national dialogue. In Albuquerque, as in other parts of the country, there will be a host of events to commemorate the achievements of King and the civil rights movement that forever changed America.

Mackenzie, 67, owner of a local wind turbine manufacturing company, and an active member of the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, said Obama’s journey was prepared years earlier by the civil rights crusaders who walked the path before him.

“The movement was broad-based. Dr. King was the most eloquent voice and had the largest vision, which is not to diminish other leaders and the rank-and-file foot soldiers,” he said. “But I think we can say very clearly that, without the civil rights movement, Barack Obama’s presidency would not have been possible and there is a direct line from Dr. King to Barack Obama.”

Harrison, a chaplain with the Albuquerque Police Department and the U.S. Marshal’s Office, and a retired Presbyterian minister, recalls that “I had reached a point in my ministry where I thought the church was irrelevant,” he says. “The church was not speaking and addressing the issues of the day.” But after participating in the march, and joining with people of other religions and races, “I saw the great potential the church had and it renewed my faith.”

Mackenzie was no more than 100 yards away from where King was speaking in the mall. Looking at the sea of surrounding faces and hearing King’s speech, “I definitely had a sense this was historic,” he said.

Drafted into the military, Mackenzie did a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1966-67, serving side by side with African-American men. Even as urban riots were breaking out across America, “We were told we were fighting for the freedom of the Vietnamese people.” The irony didn’t escape the notice of Mackenzie, his fellow black soldiers or King – who commented that black soldiers were fighting and dying “in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.”

“What Dr. King reinforced in me, what I took away was, no matter what the odds, the force of moral right is extremely powerful, and people who believe that and work for that can change the course of history.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures toward the crowd who filled the mall in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, while delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech. (The Associated Press)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures toward the crowd who filled the mall in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, while delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. (The Associated Press)

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