Fifty years ago Wednesday, hundreds of thousands rallied for African-American civil rights and economic equality in Washington, D.C.

It was then, on Aug. 28, 1963, that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Half a century later, three Boulder residents tell the Camera their stories from the March on Washington.

'There was hope'

Thomas Windham was 19 when he saw King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The New York native was spending the summer at home in the Bronx, earning money at a Brooklyn hardware factory where his father worked. Windham was about to return to college at New Mexico Highlands University. At the time, major universities still practiced segregation, and many college applications required a photo.

This Aug. 28, 1963, file photo shows Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledging the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech
This Aug. 28, 1963, file photo shows Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledging the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington. (AP )

"That seemed like a strategy for maintaining limited access," said Windham, who would later -- in 1969 -- move to Boulder to earn his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Colorado.

"So anytime an application required a photo in the upper right corner, I would throw it out."

While at the factory, Windham was required to join the United Auto Workers union, which helped organize the now-famous march. When he learned UAW was busing members to D.C. for the march, he jumped at the opportunity to attend.

Windham woke up at 3 a.m. to make it to the bus, which departed Brooklyn well before the sun came up.

His first and most vivid memory of that day was when the bus first pulled into the city. "That's when I realized D.C. is in the South," he said. "I couldn't believe how much poverty existed in the nation's capital."

Comparing the march to the Rose Bowl parade, Windham said the event was meticulously organized, with schools, unions and other organizations grouped together. As soon as they stepped off the bus, UAW participants were handed banners and placards.

"Then we pretty much just started marching," he said.

When his group arrived at the National Mall mid-morning, behind the reflection pool, the speeches had already begun. His biggest impression of the massive gathering was its peaceful and harmonious nature, saying people were relaxed but focused.

Windham said that although he had attended civil rights demonstrations before, this was the first in which most of the participants weren't exclusively African Americans. That gave the rally its power, he said.

"There were people of different faiths, there were rabbis that were speaking, there were people from abroad, there were religious clerics from other countries, and people from all across the nation," he said. "It clearly looked like America."

Windham said there were several memorable speeches before King took the stage, but when he began, "People got very quiet ... and became still."

"Had you asked me at the time, 'Will this speech go down in history and be the quintessential speech for civil rights, equal rights and human rights for the next 50 years?' my response would have been, 'I don't know,'" he said. "It was an extraordinary speech, but it was an extraordinary day and there were other extraordinary speeches."

Windham said when he returned home to the Bronx, expectations were high that things were going to change.

"There was hope," he said.

Windham went on to become a respected figure in his field, even earning a Presidential Award from the National Science Foundation for encouraging minority participation in science and engineering.

A button saved by Thomas Windham from the March on Washington 50 years ago Wednesday.
A button saved by Thomas Windham from the March on Washington 50 years ago Wednesday. (Paul Aiken)

Of how things have changed since the civil rights movement, Windham said, "We're not where we thought we'd be."

He noted the American justice system is known to have a disproportionate representation of African Americans and Latinos.

Windham said it's important to remember that while "many people have an image of the March on Washington as a march for social justice ... the focus of the march was on employment."

"Employment is a prerequisite for social justice," he said, "It is a prerequisite for self respect ... for community survival and development, and ... for social mobility."

Social justice is not just a question of color, but of gender, class and sexual orientation, he said.

"Celebrate the march, celebrate what led up to it, celebrate what followed -- and recognize and embrace the challenges that progress presents," he said.

'The rest of the city was empty'

Sara Michl was a 23-year-old college graduate working in Washington, D.C., as a librarian for the U.S. State Department. She had never been to a protest before and, at the time, was not particularly socially engaged.

"I went (to the march) because it was easy to go there," said Michl, who has lived in Boulder for 22 years. "The rest of the city was empty. People left work early that morning or didn't come in at all. What else would you do?"

Michl said that before moving to the capital, she had never thought of D.C. as part of the South. She found the city, at that time, to have an overwhelmingly Jim Crow mentality.

Michl, who stood close to the stage thanks to a five-minute walk from her work, was amazed at how peaceful the rally was, a contrast to what she remembers as a turbulent decade plagued by violence and subsequent assassinations.

"People were happy, friendly, even celebratory," she said. "All eyes were on the stage."

Michl sat through the entire program, with musical performances by Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan mixed among the speeches. Michl said King's speech, moving as it was, stands out more in retrospect than it did at the time.

After the march, Michl said, "It felt like we were finally on the upslope." She wrote about the march for her hometown newspaper in Illinois, saying, "The March is over. But its echoes and its message remain."

She said that while she is an idealist, there is much work to be done.

"It struck me recently how, at the time, I never considered why there were no women speakers on the podium," Michl said. "I think that's a testament to how much we accept things."

She said she thinks the U.S. is "still making progress in some areas," mentioning recent strides in gay rights. "However, economically, we've regressed without a doubt."

Modern movements lack that 'we-ness'

Lynn Gilbert, now a retired CU associate professor, was newly wed to her first husband when she attended the March on Washington. After getting married in Trinidad, the couple rushed to Washington to honeymoon at the march before returning to take classes at Stanford University in the fall semester.

Gilbert, who calls the event the "first mass citizen march," was politically active on the Stanford campus and felt an obligation to be at the rally.

"We weren't forging any path," she said. "We were just doing what we believed in."

Sitting about a third of the way back, Gilbert was amazed by how friendly and informal the gathering was.

She found King's speech immediately inspiring, telling how the weight of his words was reinforced by the power of his voice.

She was particularly fond of the line looking forward to a day "when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

"It was a major reinforcement in my life," she said.

Gilbert said she's "not terribly optimistic" about the future, criticizing modern social movements for lacking the "we-ness" that made the civil rights movement so successful at the time.

She said last month's outcome of the Trayvon Martin case proves that systemic racism still exists.

Gilbert believes the key to making social progress is to focus on the youth.

"We have to teach children early," she said. "That's the only way."