By Jessica Farrish
The January day was cold Thursday, and the landscape outside the classroom windows at Maxwell Hill Elementary School was snow-covered. But in Kimberly Huddle’s fourth-grade classroom, the brightly decorated walls and wintry windows seemed to fade as Judy Robinson of Beckley carried the rapt class to a sweltering August day in 1963, when 200,000 Americans joined together at the National Mall as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
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“When I was in college, Martin Luther King organized something called the March on Washington for jobs and freedom,” she said. “What he was trying to do was say to people all over America ... we need to work together for greater justice for all people, no matter what the color of their skin, no matter what country they came from, no matter what religion.”
Robinson, now a participant in the Read Aloud program, is a retired teacher and reading specialist.
She was on the Mall on Aug. 28, 1963, when King delivered his famous speech, and she came to Huddle’s class to share her experience with the students.
Robinson first read aloud a book about King’s childhood, showing the children a picture that depicted the crowd on the Mall.
She wasn’t up in front of the crowd, she told students, because those seats were reserved for celebrities.
Robinson didn’t get to talk to King, either, but she did see him.
“I was about back there somewhere,” Robinson said, pointing on a book drawing to a place near the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
The children had questions.
“Do you know how many people were there?”
“Were you there to see a statue of him?”
That long-ago day was unforgettable, and Robinson enjoys sharing it with students, she said.
“It was a pretty glorious day,” remarked Robinson.
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Words can hurt, Robinson explained, reading from a book, because rules are made of words and can do a lot of harm if they’re unfair.
A Washington, D.C., native, Robinson’s own grandparents had fled Russia prior to the Russian Revolution to escape the rule of the Tsarist autocracy there.
They thought of America as a “promised land” but soon encountered discrimination as they tried to find jobs with their Russian accents, Robinson told the class.
A second-generation born American, Robinson entered fourth grade in the fall of 1954, just months after the historic Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education had desegregated American schools.
“I remember very vividly the fuss before the schools were integrated,” Robinson told the students. “People said this is not going to work, there’s going to be fights, riots in the streets.
“I’ll tell you what happened. The first day of school, we’re all really excited, and we go into our classroom, and then walked in one very frightened, young black girl.
“Just one person, and she joined the class,” said Johnson. “A lot of people who had been fussing and carrying on ... were really embarrassed because everybody knew she was just the same as the rest of us.”
A year later, Robinson’s parents took the family to see the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Park and other famous sites out West.
“Of course, there were a lot of Native Americans who lived in that area,” she recalled. “We were in a town and were going out to eat somewhere, and on a door was a sign that said, ‘No dogs or Indians allowed.’
“Can you imagine a store sign like that?” she asked the class. “We were just horrified.”
Those were the kinds of rules King wanted to change, she explained.
In the South, most places were still “white only,” and King wanted to end segregation.
Some things weren’t “white only”: President John F. Kennedy had just reminded Americans that wars weren’t reserved just for white soldiers, Robinson said.
In response to segregation, both black and white citizens were protesting in the months before King delivered his speech.
Because of TV, journalists could show water hoses and police dogs being turned on peaceful protesters, and Americans were moved, said Robinson.
Churches were meeting places for some revolutionaries in the civil rights movement, she reported.
College students were also engaged.
“Colleges from all over the United States and all kinds of groups all over the U.S., white and black, decided we ought to go and support Martin Luther King and stand up and say, yes, things ought to change ... segregation is not a good thing, it’s not what we want America to be,” said Robinson. “People said, ‘We have to change things,’ and that’s when things started to change.”
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Robinson and her friends boarded a bus late at night on Aug. 27, 1963, she remembered.
“We drove all night long,” she said. “When we got to Washington, we saw hundreds of buses, maybe thousands, all over the city.”
It was a summer day, extremely hot and humid.
“I’ll never forget how hot it was that day,” she said Thursday.
People crowded the Mall.
“People listened, walked around, tried to find water,” she said. “We were just sweltering.
“All day long, there were speeches by all kinds of people, wonderful music,” she said. “It lasted from morning and went on and on and on.”
Robinson’s group had a picnic lunch they’d packed, listening to the speeches and music and talking, she remembered.
Before the days of cellphones, she told students, she and her brother from New York City, along with his wife, had set up a meeting at the packed Mall prior to the March on Washington.
“I got to visit with them, and it was very hot,” she remembered of the historic day. “The speeches went on and on; the music was good, but that went on and on.
“People were getting tired.”
Some marchers were lying on the ground. Others sat around the Reflecting Pool, and some even put their feet in to try to cool off, even though it was against the rules, said Robinson.
“They saved Martin Luther King for the very end of the day,” she said.
Late in the afternoon, King was introduced and stepped to the microphone to speak.
As his strong voice carried through the loudspeakers, delivering the now-famous words of “I Have a Dream,” Robinson said, something very special happened in the crowd.
“Nobody said to do this, but ... he had such an amazing, booming, resonant voice that everybody who was there stood up,” she recalled. “It was just everybody wanting to hear him. It was quite an experience.”
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Robinson spoke in Huddle’s classroom at Huddle’s request. She said she visits Raleigh schools routinely to read aloud to students and also speaks about the “I Have a Dream” speech.
She invited others to get involved in reading to children at school.
“Read Aloud is a simple thing,” she said. “It’s a good thing, and we need volunteers.”