‘I was there! I ended up 100 feet in front of the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. — Charles Ara

I was there. It was the 1960’s. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. At the time I was a young Catholic priest passionately caught up in the historic changes taking place in the church and in society.

The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Massive resistance existed to desegregating public restrooms, buses, restaurants and schools.

The anti-Vietnam war movement was beginning to grow. Michael Harrington’s book “The Other America,” is making us aware of the gaps between the rich and the poor. Cesar Chavez was challenging us in the Grape Boycott.

The Beatles were singing, “Come on, people, now. Smile on your brother. Everybody get together. Try to love one another right now.”

Yes, I was physically there. It is the day of the famous March on Washington for jobs and to end discrimination against black Americans. I arrived at the Capitol early in the morning. Busloads of people from churches of all denominations began to arrive from the deep south, the midwest and from all over the country.

I was feeling some fear that there might be some violence with such a large crowd coming together. I was there with my friend, Father Peter Beaman.  We were even more afraid that somehow, Cardinal McIntyre, our very conservative Bishop from Los Angeles would find out we were there. He did not approve of his priests taking part in Civil Rights Marches.

I was scared when I felt a slight slap on my back, but I turned to realize it was Rabbi Henry Front. He and I had integrated the Protestant Ministerial Association in Redondo Beach. As Religious Activists, we had started a Fair Housing group when a Korean Presbyterian Minister could not buy a house in Palos Verdes and blacks could not buy homes in the Don Wilson Track of the city of Torrance.

Can you imagine? I am there with Martin Luther King Jr. leading the way. We were arm in arm and in a march of 250,000 people of all races and colors. In our line marching down Constitution Avenue was the famous Jackie Robinson who had broken the color line in Major League Professional Baseball. There were protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, Catholic nuns and priests singing “We shall overcome.”

The weather was hot and the crowd marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln memorial was orderly. WE were black and white, Christian and Jew. On the route I saw a black woman sitting on the curb. She was crying. I asked her why she was crying. She responded that her tears were tears of joy as she remembered that her grandfather was a slave.

I was there! I ended up 100 feet in front of the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In the heat of the afternoon, we heard many great speeches. What else could be said? Then Dr. King approached the podium. I was there! I heard words so powerful that they helped shape modern American’s public policy and historical course. It was electrifying. Seventeen times he said. “I have a dream” followed by a crescendo of loud applause. He had no notes and it seemed he was a prophet inspired by God as the Isaiah of today.

“I have a dream that someday, the sons of slaves and the sons of slave-owners will sit down together at the banquet of brotherhood.”

“I have a dream that someday my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Dr. King went on and on.

It was one of those defining moments in my life. As a seminarian and priest, I had developed a focus on the social justice message of the Gospel. After hearing in person Dr. King’s speech, my dedication to our country’s “Pledge of …liberty and JUSTICE FOR ALL is even stronger.


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  • I Have a Dream: Shutterstock