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Witnesses to history

Elizabeth Dunbar | 8/27/2008, 5:28 a.m.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. Some attendees present for that historic address will make history again this week when they anoint Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s first black presidential nominee. AP

Dem convention delegates include some who saw MLK's 'Dream' speech

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The young adults who attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 went home after the Washington, D.C., march to immerse themselves in efforts like desegregating courtrooms and improving voting rights for minorities.

Some of them will make history again this week when they anoint the Democratic Party’s first black presidential nominee.

Barack Obama is expected to accept that nomination 45 years to the day after King spoke his famous words. And while those who attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom have seen progress for blacks through the years, Obama’s journey from community organizer to U.S. senator to the top of his party’s presidential ticket was something they hadn’t envisioned — at least, not so soon.

“I never thought I would live to see that,” said Henry L. Marsh III, 74, a state senator from Richmond, Va., who will be in the audience as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention when Obama gives his acceptance speech before a crowd of 75,000 at Denver’s pro football stadium.

Marsh is among more than a half-dozen delegates to this year’s convention who were part of the crowd of 250,000 who heard King’s “Dream” speech firsthand. Convention organizers don’t know the exact number of such delegates, but they have made sure to highlight the anniversary of King’s speech and have scheduled a special breakfast Thursday to mark the occasion.

For Josie Johnson, a delegate from Minneapolis, the timing of Obama’s acceptance speech is significant.

“Here’s this man who is the exact model of what America claims to be and surely an answer to the dream that Dr. King expressed for all of us,” said Johnson, 77, who remembers working as a teenager with her father to abolish a poll tax in Texas. Johnson, a longtime civil rights advocate and Democratic activist, attended the ’63 march with a delegation from Minnesota.

She remembers that her group stayed shut inside a church until it was time to march.

“We were very troubled, because we didn’t see a lot of people and we thought, ‘Oh, it’s going to fail,’” she said. “Then, of course, when we came out and started marching, there were all of these people coming from every corner of the country.”