Martin Luther King, 1963: "I have a dream."

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1963: Trenton shares in the dream
By CHRIS BAUD / The Trentonian
On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. transformed himself from charismatic prominent civil rights leader to national icon.

It was that day that King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

"At the time he made that speech," said Catherine Graham, head of the Trenton NAACP, "Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph were supposed to be the stars. It wasn't the 'Martin Luther King march on Washington.’ ”

But King stole the show, and it would be his inspirational oratory that would be remembered from that day forth.

"When he came to the podium, he mesmerized the crowd," said Graham, who recalls sitting on the grass half asleep until King spoke.

Graham understates the impact, for King's speech enthralled millions who were not present that day, or were not even born yet.

"I wasn't used to seeing blacks on television," said Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, who was 11 at the time.

"He was a symbol of hope and pride and courage. He fought injustices. He was so articulate, and he could move you."

Jennye Stubblefield, who served as West Ward councilwoman for more than 14 years, said of King's speech: "It was something that was needed at the time. It's something that is needed today."

King's speech and the march on Washington spawned similar actions all over the country. At a meeting of the NAACP, leaders were told to go back and stir up their communities.

Trenton's leaders, like Graham and state NAACP president Rev. S. Howard Woodson, didn't let them down.

On Oct. 26, the first large demonstration took place in Trenton since the Washington rally, as marchers — estimated at anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 — took the mile long journey down State Street to the War Memorial, singing "We Shall Overcome" and "Freedom."

Trenton was like many northern cities, with an ever increasing black population coming in from the South and whites making an exodus to the suburbs.

The focus of the march, which ended with leaders presenting a list of 10 demands to Gov. Richard Hughes, was on jobs, housing and education.

Although King did not attend the rally, the legendary Woodson, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church who died last week, filled in as fiery orator, ending his speech by saying:

"Our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is still tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

"He has loosed, through us, the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. But His truth, and righteousness  of equality and full freedom of opportunity, is marching on."

One of the main topics addressed by speakers was President John F. Kennedy's softening of a proposed public accommodations bill. The changes were aimed at making the bill more palatable to Northern conservatives and Southern segregationists.

Kennedy, who would be assassinated less than a month later, was severely criticized by speakers that day in Trenton.

“President Kennedy is taking a stronger stand on civil rights than any of his predecessors," said James Fanner, director of the Congress of Racial Equality, "but that isn't enough today because the times have changed."

Rustin, calling Kennedy "either mistaken, foolish or a liar," added, "If you want to win a fight, you don't throw in the towel before the ballgame."

While large strides have been made since, Trenton's black leaders say the fight for true equality has not ended.

Kim Rogers, daughter of late city councilman Albert "Bo" Robinson and a mayoral candidate last year, says today's black politicians aren't as committed as people such as Graham and her father.

"For them, that was their life, and this new generation of politicians, it's not, it's their livelihood."

Rogers says while her father, the executive director of United Progress Inc., an anti poverty organization, could look back and see the fruits of his labor, there's isn't anyone now to bring focus and get results.

"Nobody has the Bo Robinson kind of guts," she said. "I don't think we’ll ever see another Bo Robinson.”

Young blacks today, who cannot tell anecdotes like Graham, who preferred to go hungry instead of going in the back of a restaurant in Salisbury, Md., face different challenges.

"Young kids don't realize what it was like," Graham said. 'They get offended by something that's nothing. They don't know what it's like not to be able to go certain places. or do certain things. If they want to do something, they can do it."

Graham said poverty and education are still issues today, as well as teen pregnancy.

"I think the group we need to reach, we haven't reached yet. There's a certain segment where the wheel keeps spinning.

"If a person is hungry, or can't dress right or can't speak right, they're not going to feel good about themselves. And you have girls who are 12 or 13 and think that having a baby is a good thing, like it's a toy."

Stubblefield questions how much progress has been made since the 1960s.

"It looks like we take a step forward and two steps backward," Stubblefield said. “We didn't have kids shooting up schools, or drugs sold on every street comer, or drive by shootings."

Mayor Palmer, who says young people today are more cynical and less apt to accept what's told them on face value, paints a more positive picture.

"We've made strong progress," he said, "but we fell back into some things in the 1980s, during the 'Me Generation.' I think that now,  moving into the new millennium, there's a sense that all of us are each other's keepers."