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Recollections of the March on Washington, by Mainers Who Were There
08/28/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

On Aug. 28, 1963, 27-year-old Larry Burris of Portland was among the quarter of a million Americans who traveled to Washington D.C. for the event billed as the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." Burris was among several Maine residents who made their way to the event, joining a sea of people numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Tom Porter has more.

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March 1

Maine resident Gerald Talbot, far left, at the March on Washington.

Fifty years later, powerful images from that day are still with Larry Burris. "It was about the amazingest thing a person could ever witness," he says.

March 2The first thing that struck him, he says, was the sheer volume of buses, converging on the nation's capitol from all over the country. "I'm a bus driver and I've never seen so many buses in my life," he says. "They had buses as far as you could see."

Burris was among a panel of four speakers sharing their recollections at a public event in Portland Tuesday night, each a witness to that historic march and, to Dr. Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

"What was remarkable, I think for all of us who were there at that march, was the happiness," says Portland attorney Harold Pachios, who was in D.C. that day serving as a congressional liaison to the Peace Corps. "People got off the buses in the morning, tens of thousands from all over America, and walked down Independence Avenue and Constitution Avenue, happy, singing, with their signs."

Watch historic footage from the March on Washington.

Tuesday night's panel at the Portland Public Library addressed a crowd of about 200, some of whom had their own memories of that day. Alan Mills of South Portland - a teenage civil rights activist at the time - says he found himself in the capitol by chance.

"I get down to D.C. and see the signs for the march and I said, 'OK, this I have to participate in.' And, thankfully, I was right at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and spent the whole day there."

Dr King's speech, he says, had a permanent effect on him. "And yes, I came home motivated. I've got 53 years of activism under my belt, a lot of it because I was there in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963."

Talbot"It was a hot afternoon," says Gerald Talbot (left), former Maine president of the NAACP, and the first African-American to be elected to the state Legislature. He was also among the speakers at Tuesday night's event. In 1963, he was a 31-year-old print worker and father of three from Portland.

Talbot traveled down from Maine with Larry Burris to attend the march. Talbot says many in the crowd that day, exhausted by the heat, lay down to rest. But when Dr King took to the podium - the 16th out of 18 speakers - he says the atmosphere changed.

"Everybody stood up," he recalls. "It was like the whole earth just picked everybody up. It just electrified everybody, and they knew that."

Following Dr. King's speech, Talbot says everyone in the crowd knew it was their job to take his message back to their communities. Talbot's community - early 1960s Maine - was not as overtly racist as the South, he says, but it was still a difficult place to be black.

Talbot says life for him was hard for two reasons: "Life was hard because I am black, life was hard because I am a light-skinned black. And therefore a lot of times, I go for a job or housing or whatever, a lot of people didn't even know what I was."

Attitudes changed, he says, when people realized he was actually African-American. "I would get a job and nobody said anything, and either two or three weeks after I was working, somebody would say, 'Wait a minute, are you a Negro?' I said, 'Yes, that's exactly right." And then pretty quick I didn't have a job."

IMG_0725Portland bus driver Larry Burris (left, at panel discussion) recalls an incident in the Deep South in the 1950s. He was in the Navy at the time, traveling by train to his camp in Florida. "And I got in Alabama with my uniform on, my sea bag. I walked into a station and they says to me, 'You can't come into this part of the station.'"

Burris was told he was in a "White's Only" area. "I was here to serve the people of the United States and I couldn't even come in the station in my uniform."

Nor, he says, could he use the bathroom. "Toilets said 'White's Only.' You're going to laugh at this: I wondered, How did the sewer work underground?"

Photos:  Tom Porter

Historic photo and poster:  Courtesy Portland Public Library

We had production help with this story from Nick Woodward and Sandra Dunlap.


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