Witness to History: Alexandria’s Gwen Day-Fuller Attended the ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech in 1963

Gwen Day-Fuller’s greatest memory is attending the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial.

On the sultry morning of Aug. 28, 1963, Day-Fuller went to the speech with her mother, Lucille Peatross-Day, and her aunt, Mary Stokes. The then 19-year-old was on her summer break from Hampton University, and she and her family were among 250,000 people who disregarded widespread warnings that there would be riots at the now-fabled March on Washington.

Day-Fuller, 75, is the daughter of Ferdinand Day, who served as the first African American on the Alexandria School Board. She is a retired elementary school teacher and lives in the Alexandria house her parents bought in the early 1970s. Her father attended the speech separately, and met up with the family afterward.

This week, ahead of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, we asked Day-Fuller about her experience all those years ago.

ALXnow: What stands out in your memory of that day, Aug. 28, 1963? 

Day-Fuller: It was a very, very hot day, in August. And the crowd was immense. I mean, you were shoulder-to-shoulder and there had been a lot of discussion prior to the speech about how there would be riots, there would be people fighting. They anticipated a lot of problems. It was all on the news and everything. Well, the exact opposite happened because you could hear a pin drop out there. That was the thing that was so kind of eerie that I remember. People just walked along arms together. You know, it was just a very peaceful, kind atmosphere.

ALXnow: You and your parents and your aunt still attended the speech despite those warnings. 

Day-Fuller: We just were so inspired by Dr. King and everything that he stood for at that time. Also, it was almost like what could be worse than what we were living through already? And to think that somebody could come and have an impact upon the nation, that it might lead to a positive change. I mean, it’s like my dad, who went to Atlanta to Dr. King’s funeral. He just said that he had to go. That’s how, you know, we were just so grabbed by Dr. King as a man and over what he had done so far and what he was trying to do.

ALXnow: Where did you watch the speech? 

Day-Fuller: I was right near the Reflecting Pond. That’s where people were all around just trying to cool off. And that’s where we saw celebrities just walking along the way, like I remember seeing Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte. We also watched Roy Wilkins [former executive secretary of the NAACP] speak.

ALXnow: How long were you out that day? 

Day-Fuller: A long time. I remember everyone wanted to leave early to try to beat the crowds and be sure to not miss the bus. So, it took awhile for him to come on to actually make the speech, and I remember the heat, it was so hot. But there were no issues, not one. I don’t remember anything being that silent in my life. And there he was, he appeared onstage, and to think that you would get a glimpse of him was just amazing.

ALXnow: What effect did the speech have on you at the time? 

Day-Fuller: It was like my hairs were standing on-end. It was just amazing. I had heard him speak on TV and on the radio, but to be right there. I mean, I had no idea then that the speech would get the prominence it would. All I knew was I was in the midst of somebody extraordinary…  It just gave you hope. It made you feel like maybe this is actually going to come to an end — what we’ve been experiencing in this country — and maybe now things will change, maybe there is hope for change.

ALXnow: What effect did the speech have on your family? 

Day-Fuller: I think it just gave my dad that much more of a push to want to do even more in the community. He worked for the State Department as a career foreign service officer when he was appointed as the first African American on the Alexandria School Board the following year. Then, so many years later, he became the chair of the board and led the effort to integrate the school system.

ALXnow: Were you in D.C. when Dr. King was shot? 

Day-Fuller: Yes, I was getting my master’s in education at Howard University. I used to take the bus to school and back home at night, and my parents had started to pick me up. And so my parents picked me up that particular night, and they told me to get in the car right away, that Dr. King had been shot. I got in the car, and they told me what happened, and as we rode home it was announced that he was dead. And it was, it was amazing. I mean, from that moment, for like weeks, of course, just the whole community, the whole country was changed.

I went out to St. Mary’s Church on the south side, because my grandmother lived across the street. I went there and I said to the priest, I said, “You know, Father, I have to come in here because I have to get this off my chest. Right now I hate white people.” And that was the point that I reached, how I was feeling then. I think it was the emotion of the moment and just everything that happened and just thinking about everything that went on and the level of mistrust that had been reached. Everything just came to a head.

ALXnow: Did you go to school the day after Dr. King was assassinated? 

Day-Fuller: Yes. The next day, because I had a scholarship to go to Howard, I had to go up and do certain things like pick up my checks. My dad actually let me go up to Howard, and I went on the bus. And on my way home is when all those riots broke out. I literally looked out the bus window and saw windows being smashed, fires being started. I mean, I saw it all. All I could do was pray, “Lord, let me get back to Alexandria.”

ALXnow: What has stayed with you from that speech and what lessons from Dr. King, if any, helped you get through his passing?

Day-Fuller: I think so much stayed with me, but I think the part about people having character, and people having certain things that are intangible that, you know, it’s not about the color it’s about what you’re like inside, how you’re willing to work for something, how you’re willing to have compassion for other people, and how important your character is. I think that really stood out, and also seeing the impact that that speech had on the community, and how it just lit up the community to do more, to not let this dream of equality go, but how important it was and how you just had to keep working.

ALXnow: What do you tell your grandchildren about the speech?  

Day-Fuller: I just tell them it was a turning point for us as a people, and how beautiful it was and how I wish they could have been there to to see it. And it’s my greatest memory.

ALXnow: Do you have a favorite quote from Dr. King? 

Day-Fuller: Yes. It goes, “Use me God, show me how to take who I am, who I want to be, and what I can do and use it for a purpose greater than myself.” I think that is just what he did. What a brave, bold prayer and look at how God answered. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., changed the world and he did it with the well-being of future generations in mind rather than his own.