50 years later: Memories of the March on Washington

See John Ohala’s photos and hear his remembrances of the 1963 March on Washington. (Photos by John Ohala; slideshow by Melani King, UC Berkeley)

John Ohala took the long way to the 1963 March on Washington for Justice and Freedom, hitchhiking from northern Indiana down through the South to witness the human struggles that underlay the historic gathering on the Capitol mall.

As a student at Notre Dame, he’d followed the rise of the civil rights movement with sympathy and outrage, but no real knowledge. He graduated just months before what would become a defining moment in U.S. history, and two weeks before the march he stuck out his thumb.

“I was interested in this inequality, and I wanted to see it firsthand,” recalls Ohala, who was a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley from 1970 until this year, as the 50th anniversary of the march is noted nationwide. “I wanted to talk to people.”

Along the way, he saw things he’d only read about: overt signs of segregation like separate drinking fountains, a group soliciting funds to keep schools segregated. Now in his 70s, Ohala says his impressions were profound but his memories are murky. “I wish I’d taken more photos along the way.”

But when he arrived in Washington, early in the morning of August 28th as crowded buses, trains, vans and cars converged on the capital delivering groups of marchers, he pulled out his camera. His photos of the day — the black and white shots of an onlooker situated far from the speakers’ podium along the reflecting pool — remain his best memory of the day.

Some of the photos, replicated here, are on display at the Berkeley Public Library as part of the 50th anniversary recognition of the march, which drew 250,000-300,000 people (by official estimates, considered low) to the mall to stand up peacefully against the subjugation of African Americans and hear Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his powerful, indelible “I Have a Dream” speech.

Photography had been Ohala’s way of supporting himself through college, and his motivation to be part of the march was both photographic and personal. “I wanted to record what I thought would be a major event in the struggle for civil rights,” he says. And it was.

John Ohala in 1963, 2013

John Ohala, above as a young yearbook editor in 1963, below as looks today.

Ohala started the day taking photos of well-dressed pickets outside the U.S. Department of Justice. Among them, he remembers, was a group from Danville, Va., where just weeks before police had brutally put down a protest by high school kids.

His photos of the mall show stacks and stacks of protest signs piled high and the news media setting up for what became the first widely televised protest in history.

“It was well organized,” Ohala says.

Photo after photo show groups of marchers walking along the mall, up past the Washington Monument toward the long reflecting pool and crowding the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where the podium was set up on the stairs. One photo shows a line of police standing along the edge of the mall, but the day was as peaceful as planned. It was hot, and people dangling their feet in the pool to keep cool though a long afternoon.

Ohala brought back no photos of the civil rights leaders who spoke, or the singers — Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan. He couldn’t get close enough; but he heard them all.

“Alas, I didn’t have (couldn’t afford) a telephoto lens for my trusty Nikon,” laments Ohala. He also wishes he’d had more experience then.

King’s speech, late in the day, was inspiring, Ohala says. “I had never had any experience with Baptist pulpit oratory. This was my first experience,” he says, bringing his linguistics expertise to bear. “It was a performance. He was a great orator. It was thrilling. It was the high point.”

Ohala went on to get his Ph.D. at UCLA and has been at UC Berkeley since 1970, retiring in 2004 and resigning in 2013. He is now affiliated with the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley.

The march, he says, left an impression on him far beyond his photos.

“Sometimes people say, ‘What could I do as just one person?’ Well the march shows there’s a lot of people thinking that, and if you get them together you’ve got a force.”