“Marching With Martin Luther King August 1963” – Reverend John Wates OBE recalls his personal experience

Originated and updated by Joy Sigaud

When Reverend John Wates OBE first approached me at a drinks party a while back and said “did you know I was at the Martin Luther King rally in Washington in 1963?” I was so impressed. I had literally never met anyone from England who had actually attended. He explained the furore about getting there as he had travelled by road, not to mention the throngs of people from the UK alone who were determined to attend and show support. He explained how “treacherous” the journey was and how the English attendees were targeted by police in some of the southern states and the network that became established to inform English attendees which states to completely avoid for fear of actual bodily harm by the authorities. It remained the hidden side to this momentous historical fete and so determined were the attendees to get there that many drove hundreds of miles out of their way in order to avoid a potential death threatening fate. Such was the determination of all the marchers.

On arrival, the march and gathering was larger than anything he could have anticipated and everyone who was anyone was there. Bob Dylan performed “Blowin in the Wind, Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome.” Tanoys and amplifiers enabled the marchers to hear something and there were groups that provided entertainment in sections of the crowds.

Watched by millions on television, no one could have anticipated the powerful words Martin Luther King Jr would have uttered that day. An excellent orator and determined civil rights campaigner by any standards, this generation still revere with pride, hope and determined resignation to be inspired and continue the work Martin Luther King Jr had begun.

Reverend John Wates OBE  has devoted his life to supporting those on the fringe of society and the arts and here in his own words is his enlightening account of that great march:

Today the cry is the same but the voices have changed

Marching with Martin

A reflection on participating in the March on Washington, August 28th 1963.

“I look back on being in the 250,000 crowd that heard the “I have a Dream” speech and wonder what prompted me to go there. That Summer I had been at a Summer School at Stanford University in California. Maybe I had got ‘radicalised’ during the time I was there; perhaps my experiences before 1963 pre-disposed me to attending the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’.

I was in my last year at University. Between school and Oxford I had worked in a factory in Hanover, West Germany. Many of my fellow workers had been on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. One man I go to know was classified as 70% wounded. He had been in the Waffen SS and had taken part in a failed attack across a river. They had been forced to retreat and he had received his wounds from fellow German soldiers who had assumed they were American troops trying to fool the Germans in fake uniforms. ‘The Waffen SS never retreated!’  Many still had a hatred of Russia and couldn’t understand why the Western Allies hadn’t joined in with Admiral Doenitz to attack Russia. Doenitz had briefly succeeded Hitler as President and authorised the surrender of the German Armed Forces. As a counter to this Nazi propaganda, I used to go the ‘Amerika Haus’ in Hanover and read transcripts of the Nuremburg Trials detailing the Nazi atrocities.  So by the time I had got to University I had a good idea of racism in its most extreme form.

One of my friends at Oxford was Raficq Abdullah whose family came from South Africa. He explained the Apartheid system to me. Finally in my time at Stanford I became friends with a young White American who told me how segregation worked in the Southern States particularly in Governor George Wallace’s State of Georgia – “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever.”

At the end of Summer School I drove across the States and went to stay with family friends in New Jersey. I told them that I wanted to go to Washington for the March. They tried their hardest to dissuade me, convinced I would be killed. Indeed, the authorities mustered 5000 National Guard and the Army had 19000 soldiers in the suburbs. Hospitals stockpiled blood plasma and cancelled non-urgent operations.

In the event, the whole event passed off quietly with a very friendly, almost holiday, atmosphere. I flew down to Washington and was there in time to join the back of the crowd. My main memory was of the singing. The crowd sang and professional singers provided the ‘entertainment’. Mahalia Jackson; Marian Anderson sang “He’s got the whole world in his hands”; Joan Baez sang, “We shall overcome”; Peter, Paul and Mary sang, “If I had a hammer”; Bob Dylan sang “Blowin’ in the wind”. And we all joined in.

Finally, after endless speeches, Dr. Martin Luther King made his great “I have a Dream” speech. It was one of the great speeches of all time. But I cannot honestly say that I ‘got it’ on the day. It was a huge crowd stretching down from the Lincoln Memorial. The speeches were relayed on little Tannoy speakers. The system had apparently been sabotaged the day before and the U. S. Army Signal Corps had worked overnight to repair it.

The upshot was that it is easy to tell if someone really was there. If they say it was fantastic and the speeches were so moving as they heard every word – they were not there. It was all a bit of a muddle but the big thing was just to be there and to be part of that huge enthusiastic crowd.

Did it change my life?

Shortly after leaving University I was elected to the Brixton Council on Community Relations. I don’t know where that would have led as I left the UK to work in France where those sort of activities were illegal for foreigners. Many years later as Chair of the Wates Foundation I was involved in funding many BME groups in South London. In 2007 I got involved in the celebrations for the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. My wife is a distant descendant of William Wilberforce, the great Abolitionist. I co-commissioned a piece of music from the eminent Black Composer Errollyn Wallen for performance at Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common, the home of the Clapham Sect of Abolitionists.

As a postscript: a couple of years ago I lost my wallet in Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans. Lost Property was claimed at the Airport Police station. I was so pleased and relieved to get my property back that I asked if the Laws of the State of Louisiana permitted me to give the lady behind the desk a hug. She agreed that indeed they did. I then pointed out to her that she had just been hugged by someone who had heard Louis Armstrong perform in 1961 and Dr. King give his speech in 1963. “Hey, fellah”, she said. “Let me give you a great big hug”. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would surely have approved!”

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Photo Credit: Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech was the climax of the rally on Washington, D.C., 28 August 1963. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, sourced by A.White.
Editor’s note: Joy Sigaud has written and continues to write original articles and stories, sourced by herself for a number of platforms and magazines.