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.