Manatee County residents remember March on Washington

jtate@bradenton.comAugust 28, 2013 


On the hot summer day of Aug. 28, 1963, two young law students had the same dilemma: How were they going to ask their bosses for time off to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom?

Clarence Rogers and Harold Bradshaw, law school roommates in Washington, D.C., at the time, started their day the same way. Both dressed and headed to work; both would end up at the biggest event organized by African-Americans.

They would witness an event that would serve as a catalyst for change and equality for African-Americans, and they both almost missed it.

Rogers and Bradshaw went on to become living examples of the "dream" Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of that day and had successful careers in law.

Bradshaw became an attorney right out of law school with the Justice Department in the U.S. Attorney's Civil Rights Division.

In 1968, Rogers became the first African-American chief prosecutor for the city of Cleveland.

However, on this day in 1963, the two had one goal to accomplish: getting to the march everyone was talking about.

Rogers, then a 25-year-old Howard University Law student, had been hired by the Kennedy administration to serve as the first African-American law clerk intern in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Legal Department. He said he felt there was extra pressure to perform above average so it wouldn't discourage his employer from hiring any other African-Americans. He wasn't sure how taking off for the march would appear to his superiors.

"I felt like I really had to walk a tightrope," said Rogers, now 75 and living in Bradenton. "With the first came a lot of responsibility."

Then he got a visit from Walter Sohier, NASA's assistant general counsel. Rogers said the visit from the top guy of NASA's law department worried him because he did not know what warranted it.

Rogers remembers Sohier asking him what he was doing still in his office.

"His thing was here you are here in this office, and this is the biggest thing African-Americans have ever done, and you need to be a part of this," said Rogers.

Bradshaw was having the same concern about taking off work. Bradshaw, a law student at American University, was a summer intern at the Justice Department.

"I was going to take off period. I wasn't going to ask to take off," said Bradshaw, now 77, laughing at the memory.

He sat in his office thinking of a way to leave when his section chief entered the room and said: "Brad, don't you think you should get out of here?"

The 27-year-old was shocked.

"He said there's a big march going on. Go to the march," said Bradshaw, a Lakewood Ranch resident. "It was the exact same feeling and these were white people, and he said 'go to the march.'"

Rogers met with a friend and got to the march a few hours before it began. He said he was worried it would be a big flop because fewer than 1,000 people were there when he arrived on the mall at 10:30 a.m.

"My biggest fear was this was going to be a failure because they had predicted all these people would show up," said Rogers. "The next thing you know you see all these buses. It was a parade of buses."

Rogers said in an hour the mall filled with a mass of people, half of them dressed in their Sunday best. He said he underestimated the amount of people coming and almost missed out on having a close seat.

Bradshaw arrived alone shortly before the march started and managed to snag a seat behind the Lincoln Memorial where he was able to hear the speakers loud and clear. The D.C. native said he knew exactly where to go.

"I was behind the bandstand where they were speaking from," said Bradshaw.

The march solidified their knowledge the activism they'd participated in before this event was the right thing to do.

The day of the event was filled with peace and harmony, unlike media and police warnings in the days before.

"They predicted that it was going to be trouble," said Bradshaw. "There was fear. They thought it would be one big calamity."

Rogers said Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a great speech, but it wasn't his first time hearing King speak. Rogers and Bradshaw said they had no idea King's "I Have A Dream'"speech would become an iconic symbol for the civil rights movement.

"I said to myself at the time, 'This is just another great Martin Luther King Jr. speech,'" said Rogers. "There was no way I thought, 'Boy this is historic, this would go down in history.'"

"I knew the significance," said Bradshaw. "But it was just another day and it just so happened that it was a wonderful speech."

Although King's speech was great, both men agreed A. Philip Randolph, labor and civil rights leader, was their favorite speaker of the day.

"A. Phillip Randolph was perhaps the most vocal black person in the labor movement," said Rogers.

"He was distinguished and he was the epitome of a black gentleman," said Bradshaw. "He and Bayard Rustin organized the march."

Rogers, a husband and father of four, retired in 2001 as the greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's acting general manager.

Bradshaw, a husband and father of one, also retired in 2001 as chairman of the Board of Directors for the African American Media Incubator Inc. They chose not to attend the 50th anniversary events in Washington, D.C., beginning last weekend.

"There's no real reason we're not going, except it won't be the same. This is the anniversary, this is not the re-enactment," Rogers said looking at his long-time friend.

Bradshaw smiled and said: "We were there for the real thing."

Janey Tate, city of Bradenton and Palmetto reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. You can follow her on Twitter at Janey_Tate.

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