Dorie Ladner was a 21 year old SNCC volunteer who had been among a group of students who had attended a meeting with Medgar Evers the night before he was assassinated. John Lewis was an activist who had been raised in a small Alabama town. Frank Smith had faced death threats registering voters in Mississippi. Eleanor Holmes Norton was a young lawyer who had gained a reputation for demonstrating sharp intellect and steely courage standing toe to toe with corrupt law enforcement officials as she went to bat for wrongly arrested activists.
They spent time during their young years working on the front lines in the war against oppression, lobbying for passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the abolition of a bevy of discriminatory policies, they headed to the nation’s capital to become activists of different sorts.
Ladner became a social worker who championed those who were mentally disabled and faced other health considerations. Lewis became a Congressman. Frank Smith served on the D.C. Council, then founded and now runs the African American Civil War Museum. Norton was elected to the House of Representatives, where she has fought for a vote for her constituents, among a myriad of other causes.
As anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington has been celebrated, their contributions have been highlighted. Several were involved in the commemoration. Lewis spoke at the 2013 March on Washington on Aug. 24. Norton led a rally for D.C. statehood at the War Memorial, with Barry in attendance.
Smith held a reception for members of the movement. Ladner shared her experiences on MSNBC on the Rev. Al Sharpson’s program.
Ladner, of Northwest Washington, remembers being at the Lincoln Memorial on the day of the march. It was a heady time for the Hattiesburg, Miss., native and Tougaloo College student who had cut her teeth on the movement attending NAACP meetings in Jackson. She attended with her sister Joyce Ladner, who went on to become education administrator. There are photographs of the sisters standing in the speakers’ area.
“I came to the march in 1963 because I was sick of it,” Ladner said. “Medgar Evers had been killed. We had gotten Fannie Lou Hamer off the plantation. We couldn’t vote. I had been arrested in 1962 for picketing a Wolworth’s [drug store]. I wanted something to be done.”
Ladner worked in Atlanta gathering material for the King Center before heading to D.C.
“After getting fired, I went to work for the Fulton County [Ga.] Health Department working with people with disabilities and substance abuse [issues],” she said. “I got married. My husband, who was Ethiopian, wanted to move here because he wanted to live around more Ethiopians. Plus, I wanted to go to grad school.”
Ladner earned a master’s in social work from Howard before embarking on a career as a social worker and health activist. She chose to work at the grassroots level to allow her the freedom to continue to protest.
“If I had been a bureaucrat, I would not have had the ability to get out and demonstrate,” she said.
Barry, who was working on his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, was the first president of SNCC. He said he was asked by James Forman, an African American civil rights leader, to move to D.C. to be the first head of SNCC and open a local SNCC chapter in the District, which was then 70 percent Black.
"I was with SNCC,” he said. “We were the revolutionary arm of the movement. And we had some skepticism about the march initially. We had been hearing about it.
But once we found out what was going on, and who was sponsoring it, and what the issues were, we joined right in. I had never been to Washington before. So I got here on [Aug.] 27. I found Washington to be sleepy, southern town. And we met that morning and made it to the march.”
He and Ladner remembered that march organizers were concerned that Lewis, known for straight talk, might say something that would offend the less militant people in the audience.
“We fought that battle,” Barry said. “We got them to understand, that if he didn’t speak nobody would speak. And it worked out."