Speech ‘ al­most like song’

SundayXtra - - NEWS WORLD - By Michael E. Ruane

WASH­ING­TON — Af­ter her Louisiana sit- in three years be­fore, and her flight north to fin­ish col­lege, and now the trek to the thronged Mall, Janette Hos­ton Har­ris was about to see the fa­mous Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time.

She was 23, newly mar­ried and stood on her tip­toes with sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple jammed in front of the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial. Her hus­band, Ru­dolph, 27, had climbed a tree for a bet­ter view. It was Aug. 28, 1963.

The an­tic­i­pa­tion was tremen­dous. King was the last of the 10 of­fi­cial speak­ers at the March on Wash­ing­ton for Jobs and Freedom. Janette Har­ris had heard him on the ra­dio and seen him on TV, though never in per­son.

But when he fi­nally took the lectern that warm, sunny Wed­nes­day, a park ranger had to bend down the flex­i­ble mi­cro­phones for him to speak, and Har­ris was struck by his mod­est height.

Monumental speeches like his surely must come from a man of monumental stature, she had thought, “a gi­ant of a man.”

Then King be­gan his “I Have a Dream” speech, and his voice echoed over the crowd like that of a prophet: “I am happy to join with you to­day in what will go down in his­tory as the great­est demon­stra­tion for freedom in the his­tory of our na­tion.”

Fifty years later, Har­ris, now 73, and her hus­band, 77, sat in their North­west Wash­ing­ton home and re­mem­bered how King’s words were, in­deed, those of a gi­ant that day, and how they moved the cou­ple so per­son­ally.

“It was like we were spellbound,” she said.

“As long as I live on the face of this Earth, I shall never for­get it,” Ru­dolph Har­ris said. “He cap­ti­vated me... He had got into my spirit, or into my mar­row.”

Ru­dolph Har­ris is a bi­ol­o­gist, Air Force vet­eran and re­tired branch chief at the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Janette Har­ris is a his­to­rian, col­lege teacher and for­mer pres­i­dent of Carter G. Wood­son’s As­so­ci­a­tion for the Study of Ne­gro Life and His­tory in Wash­ing­ton.

They are among an ever- dwin­dling num­ber of peo­ple, many now grey­haired and ag­ing, who can say they were present for King’s speech in 1963.

“That day just ce­mented ev­ery- thing I had done,” said Janette Har­ris, who had helped stage the 1960 Louisiana lunch counter sit- in, spent a day in jail and been thrown out of South­ern Univer­sity as a trou­ble­maker. “It made real for me that ev­ery­thing I had done was the right course to take.”

That course had started in seg­re­gated Mon­roe, La., where she was born to a seam­stress and a mid­dle- class black busi­ness­man who owned a shoe store and a real es­tate busi­ness.

Her fa­ther, Eluen, would later start the first black li­brary in Mon­roe and open the first swim­ming pool for blacks. “They had none of that when I was grow­ing up,” she said.

“He never wanted us to work for white peo­ple, be­cause my grand­mother worked for $ 3 a week iron­ing clothes,” Janette Har­ris said. “He kept say­ing, ‘ You can’t do that. You’ve got to do bet­ter than that.’

“He de­ter­mined ... that we would go to col­lege,” she said.

Her fa­ther en­listed her to help blacks in Mon­roe reg­is­ter to vote. The rule was they had to re­cite the pre­am­ble to the Con­sti­tu­tion in or­der to reg­is­ter, she said.

They trained peo­ple for weeks and then drove them to the court­house to reg­is­ter. “My grand­mother missed one word,” she said. “They made her come back the next day. I was never so an­gry.”

Civil rights ad­vo­cates had been call­ing for a march on Wash­ing­ton since the 1940s.

Al­though there had been boy­cotts and demon­stra­tions in in­ter­ven­ing years, it took a bru­tal at­tack on pro­test­ers by po­lice with dogs and fire hoses in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., in spring of 1963 to fo­cus re­newed at­ten­tion on civil rights.

Sens­ing the mo­ment, King sug­gested his South­ern Chris­tian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence should stage a mas­sive protest march on Wash­ing­ton. But such a march al­ready was in the works, un­der the di­rec­tion of A. Philip Ran­dolph, a 74- yearold vet­eran civil rights and union leader. King and other groups joined the ef­fort.

Janette and Ran­dolph Har­ris were liv­ing in a lit­tle house on Far­ragut Place, off North Capi­tol Street at the time. They had no chil­dren yet and very lit­tle money.

Wash­ing­ton, where she had moved af­ter col­lege, was then not quite as seg­re­gated as Louisiana. “They didn’t have signs up that said ‘ Col­ored,’ and ‘ Whites,’ none of that. But you could feel it.”

She wasn’t per­mit­ted to try on clothes in a depart­ment store, she said, and her hus­band was fol­lowed by clerks when­ever he went shop­ping.

“The fire was still in my belly for change,” she said. “When we heard about the march on Wash­ing­ton, we just knew we were go­ing to be there. We read about it, and we knew we were com­ing.”

Three years ear­lier, on March 28, 1960, Janette Har­ris and six other South­ern Univer­sity stu­dents sat down at the whites- only lunch counter in the seg­re­gated S. H. Kress five- and- ten- cent store in Ba­ton Rouge. The group was ar­rested and thrown into the seg­re­gated jail, mak­ing national head­lines.

All were re­leased on bail within a few hours af­ter be­ing charged with dis­turb­ing the peace. They re­turned to cam­pus, where fel­low stu­dents ral­lied to their side.

But the gover­nor of Louisiana or­dered the state- sup­ported school to take “de­ci­sive ac­tion” against the stu­dents or its bud­get would be af­fected, she said. The stu­dents were im­me­di­ately ex­pelled but all were in­vited to en­rol at Cen­tral State Univer­sity in Wil­ber­force, Ohio. They started in Septem­ber 1960.

She said her fam­ily and friends were ter­ri­fied about what might hap­pen to her back in Louisiana. Even af­ter she grad­u­ated, they wor­ried about her re­turn­ing. “My mother said, ‘ You can­not come back to Mon­roe... You will be killed.’ ”

“I said, ‘ Well, where do I go?’ ” she said. She had a cousin in the Dis­trict, so “I packed up all my stuff and came to Wash­ing­ton.”

On Aug. 28, 1963, Har­ris and her hus­band had been mar­ried about nine months. They had been wed the pre­vi­ous De­cem­ber at a Howard Univer­sity chapel.

Ru­dolph Har­ris, the son of a truck driver and a school teacher, was a na­tive of Shreve­port and had stud­ied at South­ern Univer­sity be­fore his wife. They met in Ohio when she was a stu­dent and he was in the Air Force. He fol­lowed her to Wash­ing­ton when she moved.

He said he be­lieved he and other black pro­fes­sion­als his age had ben­e­fited from the ag­i­ta­tion of peo­ple like his wife, who were just a few years younger.

They planned to go to the march to­gether. They left early in the morn­ing, tak­ing the bus and then walk­ing “for­ever,” she said. They made their way through the crowd along the Re­flect­ing Pool and stopped un­der a tree near the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial. Ru­dolph Har­ris climbed the tree to see bet­ter. “We al­ways tease him about the fact that he climbed up in his tree,” Janette Har­ris said with a laugh.

As they waited, the ex­cite­ment and the crowds grew.

“It was one of those days when you’re say­ing you’ll never see it again,” she said.

They had a good view of the stage as King be­gan to speak.

“It was melody,” she said. “It was rhythm. The way he put the melody and rhythm to­gether to say what he said... It was al­most like song.

“I knew at that mo­ment it was the best speech I had ever heard,” she said.

Peo­ple were on their feet. “It was al­most like you were in a church,” she said.

When King fin­ished, she said, peo­ple left re­luc­tantly, as if hop­ing for more. The Har­rises made their way home and turned on the old TV her fa­ther had given to them, to watch re­plays of an event that was al­ready his­tory.

They went on to have two chil­dren, and each earned a PhD. The Louisiana sit- in case went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, where the stu­dents were ex­on­er­ated. And in 2004, South­ern Univer­sity awarded Janette Har­ris an hon­orary un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree, 44 years af­ter she was ex­pelled.

Much has changed, they said, but grave threats re­main. Janette Har­ris said their 13- year- old grand­daugh­ter com­plains when Har­ris talks about the civil rights strug­gle.

“She says, ‘ Nana, I’ve heard it so much.’ And I say, ‘ But you don’t un­der­stand. You can­not hear it enough.’ ”

Ru­dolph Har­ris added: “You can­not let your guard down, ( or) you’re go­ing to lose some of the things that you thought you al­ready had.”

— The Wash­ing­ton Post


ABOVE LEFT: Demon­stra­tors at the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial dur­ing the 1963 march. ABOVE RIGHT: The Rev. Al Sharp­ton ( cen­tre) leads a group 50 years later.

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