Mike Goldberg, 78, was a student at Montgomery College in Takoma Park in 1963 when a group of his friends decided to hop on a bus to nearby Washington, D.C., to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Monday marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. famously delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech that has been widely considered a catalyst in the Civil Rights movement.
Goldberg, then 18, said he had no idea how impactful the march would be, both on the country and on him personally.
The goal of the march was to draw attention to the inequities and discrimination experienced by Black people in America. It’s estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 people attended the demonstration. Historians have credited the march with being instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“To go and hear Martin Luther King’s speech … it changed my life,” the Silver Spring resident said.
County Executive Marc Elrich (D) was just 13 and living in Silver Spring with his family when he attended the march. Now 73, he said it wasn’t his first time engaging in social action, and while his parents valued civil rights, attending the march was his idea, and he went by himself.
“I was a very precocious child,” he laughed during an interview. “I was already pretty interested in politics.”
Elrich said at the time, Montgomery County was deeply segregated. Racial covenants, which banned Black people and Jews from living in certain neighborhoods, were not only commonplace, but legal. He said agents had come to his parents’ home in Silver Spring to convince them to sell the house before Black people came into the neighborhood, saying it would lose value.
“[The county] was pretty racist… that was something that really bothered me at the time,” he said.
Elrich said while he was deeply moved by King’s speech, he could never have predicted the impact the speech would have on the country.
“I was kind of off to the left of where the stage was, if I remember correctly. You’re listening to all these people, and you have no idea how important speeches will become – what do I know as a 13-year-old kid?” Elrich said. “When King spoke, I didn’t know that this was going to wind up being a landmark speech … I just knew that what he was talking about was something that resonated with me.”
Goldberg shared similar sentiments. He said he was disturbed by the racism he saw his Black friends experience. He said he experienced antisemitic bullying in high school, which led him to struggle in his classes. While Goldberg technically cut class at Montgomery College to attend the demonstration, but he said some professors were encouraging students to attend the march, or even took groups of students to the march themselves.
“I remember holding hands with two people – a lawyer in a suit and a Black woman who worked as a maid at the Harrington Hotel in D.C. It was my first time singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’” Goldberg said. “It makes me emotional now … it was just the emotional connection of feeling like people really care about each other.”
Goldberg said he later returned to the site when he attended President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and he was overcome with emotion and memories from the march, particularly that moment.
Goldberg recalled Bob Dylan, who was then just breaking into the music scene, performing alongside John Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. Goldberg said while King’s speech left a mark, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis – who later became a U.S. Representative – had a huge impact on him as a fellow young person.
“He was young, like me and my friends … it really made us feel like young people could be a part of this change. He was very inspiring,” Goldberg said.
Both Goldberg and Elrich said their participation in the march and in other civil rights demonstrations had a profound impact on what they chose to do in their careers.
Goldberg joined the Vista volunteer corps program, known today as Americorps, specifically to work toward social change. He was sent to Nashville, Tennessee in his early 20s to do social work in segregated neighborhoods.
“I really felt obligated to try and make a difference in this community,” Goldberg said. “It really did change the trajectory of my life.”
Goldberg later taught in Baltimore City, working with at-risk youth. He said it was important for him to work to address the inequities that students of color particularly faced, and he successfully worked toward getting his students to a 90% employment rate after graduation.
“I wanted to work with kids who had problems, kids who came from difficult backgrounds, teen parents, juvenile offenders,” Goldberg said. “I wanted to help kids achieve the same opportunities, no matter who they were.”
Goldberg’s class was featured in the Academy Award-nominated 1983 documentary High Schools.
Elrich said he also felt the march impacted the trajectory of his life.
“I was pretty radical by the time I was 10 or 11 in my political beliefs by the standards of the time,” Elrich said “I feel pretty strongly that the world has changed. This was just embarrassing; this enormous injustice.”
But Elrich said he still thinks the country is grappling with race and inequality. One area in which he sees this, and is trying to address as county executive, is housing inequality.
“I got involved in housing issues as a young person. But it hasn’t gotten better, and I feel like there’s always this work to do,” he said. “I keep an eye on racial equity stuff because it’s really important to me… we still need to address the achievement gap in schools. It’s something we’re still talking about.”
Were you or someone you know at the March on Washington? We would love to include your story in this article. Please email reporter Ginny Bixby at firstname.lastname@example.org.